You may have missed this last week (it didn’t get as much play as you might think). MLB and the independent Atlantic League have agreed to test some rule changes during the Atlantic League’s 2019 season. The commissioner’s office is trying to figure out two things here: how to reduce the amount of dead time (which is to say, the amount of time with absolutely nothing going on) and how to get more balls into play. Some of the proposed rule changes are minor tweaks, some are dramatic changes in the way the game is played. Here is a breakdown of each, along with my take and a ballpark guesstimate of the chance it becomes an actual MLB rule when the new CBA is negotiated.
Implement computerized ball/strike calls:
This proposed rule change is a bit more nuanced than it might sound at first. There would still be a home plate umpire, and he would still be responsible for calling any pitches that bounce, for calling foul tips, for allowing catcher’s challenges on check swings and other ball/strike duties. But make no mistake, the vast majority of balls and strikes would be called by the computer, similar to the Trackman system currently used to evaluate umpires. There would be several improvements to the game that would come from this, not the least of which would be standardization of the strike zone (as much as we all want to believe the umpires all pretty much call strikes the same, the reality is they don’t). Who would be hurt by this? Pitchers who rely on spotting everything on the edges; quite a few of their pitches that a good catcher can “steal” for them will suddenly become balls. Catchers, as well, who have come to rely on the “pitch framing” metric as a bargaining tool.
Odds of rule being implemented: Better than even, call it 3:1. Yes, catchers, pitchers and agents will be unhappy. But it checks off all the reasons baseball is experimenting, and we’ve already seen technology take over all the controversial plays, anyway.
Change from an 15-inch base to 18 inches:
Nobody I’ve talked to can quite figure out the reasoning behind this proposed change. My personal take is it will mess with the intricate timing of the infield more than perhaps the Lords of Baseball realize. Think about how many plays there are over the course of the season where the batter is out by perhaps an inch at first, or where a runner is thrown out at second by an eyelash. Maybe baseball is trying to get away from needing so many replays, but it seems to me there will be a lot more safe calls as a result. If anything, I might be able to live with a larger bag at second, now that runners are forced to slide through the bag and fielders are required to stay on it until they’ve thrown the ball, thereby giving middle infielders a bit more protection. But there’s no reason to change the base size at first or third.
Odds of rule being implemented: Since nobody knows what MLB is hoping to achieve, this is a difficult to gauge. Call it 50/50.
No mound visits except for injuries or pitching changes:
Look, I understand the casual fan doesn’t understand why a tubby 55 year old dude is jogging out to the mound to talk to the pitcher. I can see them being confused by having the catcher run out to talk to a pitcher, and then the shortstop, and then the first baseman, and so forth. You know what? That’s fine. But there are occasions where having a pitching coach pay a kid on the mound a visit is absolutely necessary (like, say, his mechanics are all messed up and he’s about to throw his arm out). There are legitimate reasons a catcher might have a word with the pitcher (like, changing signs). And yes, sometimes, it’s pure gamesmanship. But that’s baseball. I get MLB is trying to cut down on dead time. But pitching visits aren’t actually dead time, and only people who haven’t ever played the game think it is.
Odds of rule being implemented: Of all the proposed rule changes, this one is the second most certain to become a rule. Baseball has already limited teams to 6 mound visits per game. I also suspect this one will become a former rule quickly – probably in the amount of time it takes some kid to pop an elbow on the mound and his manager to blast the commissioner’s office.
All pitchers must face a minimum of 3 batters, or pitch to the end of an inning, before being replaced:
This one isn’t hard to understand. I’ve certainly railed against the number of pitching changes, LOOGY’s, ROOGY’s, 6th inning specialists, and so forth. But to me, this is going about things the wrong way. If you want to cut down on the number of pitching changes, a far simpler way without messing with basic strategy would be to limit the number of pitchers each team can have on their 25- and 40-man rosters. No more than 10 pitchers on the 25-man, and no more than 16 on the 40-man, roster means managers would have to be more judicious in making pitching changes. Starters would be forced to go deeper, and teams wouldn’t be able to utilize a AAA shuttle to stash relievers.
Odds of rule being implemented: I don’t rate this one as having a very good chance of getting in. Maybe a 1 in 5 chance, since I can’t think of any MLB stakeholder who is going to like it. The players won’t. The union won’t. Managers and GM’s won’t.
Two infielders must be on each side of second base at all times, and no infielder may position himself with either foot in the outfield at any time prior to a pitch being delivered:
The idea here is to get rid of some of more drastic infield shifts (and 4 and 5 man outfield alignments) we’ve seen managers employ recently. I’m not a fan of the idea of eliminating the shift entirely. After all, if the hitters were smart, they would start taking the ball the other way more often. But this is a rule change that’s been discussed a lot over the past couple of seasons, so I suppose we’ll see how it plays out in real life.
Odds of rule being implemented: I think this proposed change, more than any others, depends entirely on how the test plays out. If .240 hitters suddenly turn into .300 hitters, baseball is going to race to put it in. If, as the current data suggests, it only yields one more hit a week league wide, then this will die before ever seeing the light of day.
Reduce the amount of time between half innings and pitching changes by 20 seconds:
About the only people who will complain about reducing the amount of time between half innings will be beer advertisers and hot dog vendors. Reducing the amount of time during a pitching change could pose some problems for pitchers, though – especially if they aren’t given ample time to warm up in the bullpen first, which is a very real possibility without the benefit of mound visits.
Odds of rule being implemented: This one is a virtual lock.
Move the pitcher’s rubber from 60 feet, 6 inches to 62 feet, 6 inches from home plate:
I think this is the rule that got everyone’s attention and has also been almost universally panned. We get it, ok? Pitchers are throwing harder than ever and their breaking pitches are also nastier than ever. The idea here is to allow the hitter more reaction time, thereby increasing the chance they’ll put the ball in play. But of all the ways to accomplish that goal, this is probably the dumbest and whichever nerd in the commissioner’s office came up with this needs to be fired and never let anywhere near a baseball field again. It would mean every pitcher would need to learn how to pitch all over again, because every angle on every pitch would be completely changed – or never be a strike again. Look, you want to even the deck between pitchers and hitters? Lower the strike zone, or lower the mound, or increase the size of the ball. Or even some combination of all three. But not this.
Odds of rule being implemented: What’s a number smaller than zero? Because that’s what the odds are. I think this is being tossed out there as a bargaining chip by MLB, something they know will never happen that hopefully will get some small concession back from the players in the CBA negotiations.
Yesterday, I published my picks for the National League. While I’m writing this a couple of days in advance, I just want to let all you Cubs, Mets and Phillies fans know to keep the hate mail coming (my crystal ball works for more than baseball). Today, I’m turning my crystal ball to the American League, where I’m sure I’ll upset some other fan base. So let’s begin this on the left coast, shall we?
- Houston Astros
- Los Angelos Angels of Anaheim
- Seattle Mariners
- Texas Rangers
- Oakland Athletics
Look, as much as we may not want to admit it, Houston may be even better than last year and they’re playing in what is arguably baseball’s worst division. It is entirely plausible that not only will the Astros surpass 100 wins, but win the AL West by 20+ games. Yes, the rotation lost Dallas Keuchel, but free agent signee Wade Miley is almost a clone. The bullpen should be better with a full season of Roberto Osuna in place of Ken Giles. As for the offense, losing Marwin Gonzales and Brian McCann will hurt some, but a full season of Tyler White and the addition of Michael Brantley will more than offset those players.
The Angels hopes rest on the fragile arms of their starting rotation, which hasn’t combined for even 90 starts in the last three seasons. But baseball’s consensus best player, center fielder Mike Trout, a top five left fielder in Justin Upton and a much-improved defense, led by our generation’s “Wizard”, shortstop Justin Upton, will keep the Angels around .500 this year.
The Mariners traded away almost their entire team this winter. The rebuild is on. If you live in Seattle, you do have right fielder Mitch Haniger and the latest Japanese phenom, Yusei Kukuchi. Other than that, it’s going to be a long season.
But not as long as it will be in Arlington. The Rangers are still in the midst of a rebuild seemingly designed around strikeouts. Unfortunately, those strikeouts are coming from their young hitters and not their pitchers. Joey Gallo, Nomar Mazara, Rougnod Odor and Elvis Andrus may combine for 500 strikeouts this year. Yes, they’ll hit some moonshots in Texas. But the offense’s propensity for leaving men on, combined with a jello pitching staff of never were’s and never will be’s could well mean a 100 loss season.
Oakland was a feel-good story last year. This year, reality will come crashing back on the green and gold. The A’s are going to try and piece together a starting rotation from a bunch of retreads and castoffs, similar to last year, but last year every roll of the dice worked and they had Sean Manea to head things up. This year, no such luck. It’s also hard to believe closer Blake Treinen will replicate an ERA below 1 again. Yes, they have possibly the two best corner infielders in the league in Matt Chapman and Matt Olson, and Khris Davis will likely hit 40 bombs again. But the rest of the team is pretty meh. Last year’s team shocked the world and won 97 games. This year’s version will shock the world again, but by losing 90+ games.
- Minnesota Twins
- Cleveland Indians (WC)
- Chicago White Sox
- Kansas City Royals
- Detroit Tigers
Yes, I’m going out on a limb and picking the Twins to unseat Cleveland in the Central. But I like every move Minnesota made this offseason. They rebuilt their infield, adding Jonathon Schoop, CJ Cron, and Marwin Gonzalez. They added an ageless hitting machine in Nelson Cruz to be their primary DH. The starting rotation features young aces Jose Berrios and Kyle Gibson, and perhaps the most quality depth in the junior circuit. The biggest area of concern will be their bullpen, but this is a team with the depth to make a move at the deadline if they need a reliever or two. 90+ wins for this team is a distinct possibility, although in this weak division 85 might get the job done.
No team had a worse winter than the Indians. They went into November needing outfield help and maybe a second baseman. They arrived in March needing outfielders, a second baseman, a starting catcher, a first baseman, and middle relief help. Yes, the 1-2-3-4 punch of Kluber-Bauer-Carrasco-Clevinger in the starting rotation is the best in the league. But outside of Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez, there really isn’t much on hand. Hall of Fame candidate and manager Terry Francona is going to be hard pressed to keep the Tribe from finishing under .500 this year.
The rest of the division is kind of a toss-up, but I’m going with the White Sox simply because some of their young talent looks ready for the major leagues. Finishing with a winning record is probably beyond their ability, but watching Eloy Jimenez, Yoan Moncada, Yolmer Sanchez and Adam Engel will at least make the ChiSox exciting to watch.
Kansas City will lead the league in stolen bases. GM Dayton Moore has stockpiled a team full of speedsters, led by possibly the best second baseman in the game, Whit Merrifield. He’ll have plenty of competition for the stolen base crown from teammates Adelberto Mondesi, Billy Hamilton and Brett Phillips, provided that trio can actually get on base.
Detroit is waiting on trading right fielder Nick Castellanos and watching first baseman Miguel Cabrera add to his Hall of Fame resume. Other than that, the Tigers will battle Baltimore for the worst record in the league.
- New York Yankees
- Boston Red Sox (WC)
- Toronto Blue Jays (WC)
- Tampa Bay Rays
- Baltimore Orioles
The division last year featured two 100 win teams, in the Yankees and Red Sox. This year, the Yankees set about improving their weaknesses while Boston suffered some big player losses. Those two factors will give the Bronx Bombers a slight edge for the division title this year. New York added starting pitcher James Paxton, re-signed JA Happ to be the fourth starter and brought back CC Sabathia for one final go-round in his Hall of Fame career. An offense that set the major league record with 269 home runs last season has a legitimate shot at topping 300 dingers, with full seasons from Aaron Judge, Greg Bird and Gleyber Torres, valuable additions Troy Tulowitzki and Luke Voit, and bounce back years from Gary Sanchez and Clint Frazier. But the key to New York’s season will be their bullpen, possibly the most dominant in history with All-Stars Dellin Betances, Adam Ottavino and Zack Britton setting up closer Aroldis Chapman.
Boston returns much of the same team from last year, but is missing two key members of that team’s bullpen: setup man Joe Kelly is now a Dodger and closer Craig Kimbrel is (unbelievably) still a free agent. Boston hopes to fill their spots from within. Otherwise, they’ll continue to a rely on well above starting pitching, paced by Chris Sale and David Price and abundant offense, led by the game’s best right fielder, Mookie Betts and DH JD Martinez. The Red Sox and Yankees will be in a dogfight until the last week of the season, and the possibility of both teams eclipsing 100 wins again remains a real possibility.
The Blue Jays were one of last year’s most disappointing teams, but will be one of this year’s pleasant surprises. Vladimir Guerrero, Jr may start the season at AAA, but by May he’ll be in Toronto, solidifying a deep lineup that includes Lourdes Gurriel at short, All-Star first baseman Justin Smoak, Brandon Drury at second and Randall Grichuk in right field. But the biggest improvement will be in the pitching, with Marcus Stroman reclaiming his spot among the games best, Aaron Sanchez finally over his blister problems and Matt Shoemaker leaving the injures that largely sidelined him the past two years in California. Volatile closer Ken Giles may cost this Jays team a couple of wins, but they should still be good enough to sneak into the second Wild Card slot.
Tampa Bay surprised everyone last year by winning 90 games. They’ll still be decent, but not 90 wins decent. No team relied less on their starters last year than the Rays, as they sprang the concept of the “opener” on the baseball world. Despite that, Ian Snell won the AL Cy Young, turning in one of the best seasons by a starting pitcher in recent memory. Additions Charlie Morton and Tyler Glasnow will lend support, but Tampa looks primed to use an opener and their deep, if unproven, bullpen two to three times a week. The offense will be anchored by left fielder Tommy Pham and catcher Mike Zunino, while a cast of youngsters (Austin Meadows, Brett Duffy, Yandy Diaz and Willy Adames being the most prominent) tries to acclimate themselves to the major league game.
Baltimore lost 110 games last year. It’s possible this year’s team will be even worse. The most exciting thing will be to see if former All-Star first baseman Chris Davis descent into being the worst player in the major leagues continues. Beyond that, buy a scorecard if you go to an Orioles game, because otherwise you won’t know the players.
We’re less than a month away from meaningful baseball games beginning and that can only mean one thing. Yes friends, it is time once again for my predictions. Last year, I picked 3 of 6 divisions correctly. But the Braves were a shocker to almost everyone, I didn’t miss on the Brewers by much (I had them in the Wild Card game), and the Red Sox were much better than pretty much anyone expected last Spring. Anyway, here’s this year’s picks, beginning with what should be baseball’s most interesting division.
- Washington Nationals
- Philadelphia Phillies (WC)
- Atlanta Braves
- New York Mets
- Florida Marlins
This division should be a dogfight until the last game of the season, but I’m picking the Nationals for one reason: their pitching staff should be the best in the division, if not all of MLB. Yes, they lost Bryce Harper to the division rival Phillies, but if healthy, Adam Eaton will add more athleticism in right field, while Victor Robles in center will be a contender for Rookie of the Year. There are still plenty of big bats, led by Anthony Rendon, Ryan Zimmerman, and Juan Soto to make for a top-notch lineup.
The Phillies made multiple significant additions besides Harper. Catcher JT Realmuto and shortstop Jean Segura are a pair of All-Star caliber players obtained in shrewd trades, and veteran free agent Andrew McCutcheon was an equally shrewd signing. They added another proven veteran to their bullpen in David Robertson. In fact, the Phillies could have a really good bullpen, if second-year man Seranthony Dominguez can replicate last season’s success and old pros Tommy Hunter and Pat Neshek can stay off the injured list. Combined with what should be one of the league’s best offenses, that will be enough to contend for a Wild Card berth. The one thing holding this team back is their starting rotation, which right now is Aaron Nola, a declining Jake Arrietta and a cast of hundreds.
The Braves added third baseman Josh Donaldson, who will want to prove he has more left in the tank. Added to perennial MVP candidate Freddie Freeman and last year’s Rookie of the Year, left fielder Ronald Acuna and super-utilityman Johann Camargo, Atlanta will be another high scoring team that will only go as far as their pitching can take them. The Braves are relying on a bunch of unproven kids, led by All-Star Mike Foltynewicz. That bodes well for 2020, but not so much for 2019.
The Mets are another team that has made wholesale changes. New GM Brodie van Wagenen brought in the ageless Robinson Cano to play second base, Jed Lowrie to play everywhere, All-Star Wilson Ramos to catch and last year’s best closer in Edwin Diaz. However, age and injuries will once again be the New Yorker’s biggest problem and will end their season by mid-August. Still, the Mets have two intriguing rookies in first basemen Peter Alonso and Dominic Smith. Look for one of them to be traded at the deadline for a nice return.
Finally, the Marlins, whose best player is either Starlin Castro or Neil Walker. Yep, enough said.
- St. Louis Cardinals
- Milwaukee Brewers
- Pittsburgh Pirates
- Chicago Cubs
- Cincinnati Reds
The Cardinals quietly had one of the better offseasons of any team in baseball. They added first baseman Paul Goldschmidt, which automatically improved their defense and offense. That shifted Matt Carpenter back to third. The offense, led by Goldschmidt, Carpenter, left fielder Marcell Ozuna and shortstop Paul DeJong, will be among the league’s best. The Cards have been done in by bullpen woes the past couple of seasons, but the addition of Andrew Miller will help settle that unit down, and only the Dodgers have a deeper rotation.
Still, St. Louis isn’t going to run away with the division. The defending division champion Brewers return the bulk of their team from last season, including MVP right fielder Christian Yellich and Mike Moustakas trying to make the switch to second base. And like last year, the Milwaukee will try to ride a mix-and-match rotation and dominant bullpen to another division crown. Unlike last year, that rotation instability will leave them just short of both first place and a Wild Card berth.
Pittsburgh remains a team that seemingly will never spend on players. Despite that, they’ll still be in contention when the calendar turns to September, led by a young and excellent rotation, headed by Chris Archer and Jamison Taillon. A middling offense, paced by Cory Dickerson and my candidate for this year’s breakout player, Colin Moran, will score just enough runs to power the Bucs to a winning record and respectable third place finish.
Is there any team with more internal turmoil than the Cubs? While that formula worked for the Yankees of the late 70s, it usually spells doom. So it will be for the North Siders this year. The talent is certainly there to contend, with an offense led by Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Javier Baez, Kyle Schwarber and Ian Happ. But the rotation is far from settled, with Yu Darvish and Tyler Chatwood looking to make good on their untradeable contracts, an aging Jon Lester and Jose Quintana wondering if he should have stayed on the South Side. The bullpen may be a strength – or a weakness if last year’s injury woes repeat. Add in the drama around shortstop Addison Russell and manager Joe Maddon’s contract status, and Chicago looks set up for a fourth place finish and their first losing season since 2015.
Cincinnati made a lot of moves this offseason and definitely improved their team. They still have first baseman Joey Votto and second baseman Scooter Gennett, and imported outfielders Matt Kemp and Yasiel Puig along with pitchers Sonny Gray, Alex Wood, and Tanner Roark. The Reds won’t be dreadful and if they catch a few breaks could even finish above .500. But they are in the wrong division to have dreams of competing.
- Los Angelos Dodgers
- Colorado Rockies (WC)
- Arizona Diamondbacks
- San Diego Padres
- San Francisco Giants
The Dodgers biggest addition will be the return of young shortstop Cory Seager, who should cement their offense. Free agent center fielder AJ Pollock has some serious injury history, but LA’s habit of mix-and-matching players should keep him rested enough to avoid those. As always, everything in Tinseltown begins and ends with their starting rotation, which goes ten deep with quality options. That rotation is backed by a top-five bullpen, still headlined by Kenley Jansen.
The Rockies may play in a hitter’s paradise, but their team didn’t really take advantage of it last year. This year, with the addition of Daniel Murphy (who will slide from second to first base), the promotion of promising rookie Ryan McMahon and David Dahl getting a full-time slot in right field, that looks to change. Provided young starters Kyle Freeland, German Marquez, and Tyler Anderson continue to give the team quality innings, a 90 win season and Wild Card berth is likely.
Arizona is a team that can’t quite transition to rebuild mode, so long as ace Zack Greinke and his $34 million salary are in the desert. They traded away perennial MVP candidate Paul Goldschmidt and slid Jake Lamb over from third to man his spot. They also lost AJ Pollock. In short, the Snake’s offense and defense will be dramatically worse than last season. While getting to .500 will be a struggle for team, this division is so weak that a third place finish is likely.
San Diego has Manny Machado and some of the best young talent in baseball. Those storylines alone will make the Padres one of the more interesting teams to follow, but the Friars are still a couple of years away from contending.
The Giants have Buster Posey, Madison Bumgardner and the memories of championships past. They also have a cold, foggy baseball stadium, which will be a fitting venue for one of baseball’s dreariest teams this year. 100 losses is a distinct possibility for this historic franchise.
Tomorrow, I’ll turn my sights on the American League.
I haven’t written a baseball post in a while, so I figured it was time to get one out there. Today’s submission is for a trade that would definitely take baseball by surprise, although if you stop to think about it, it shouldn’t.
So far, the media and fans have been concentrating on the top of the free agent market: Manny Machado, Bryce Harper, Patrick Corbin, etc. Or they’re focused on the big-name pitchers that have found themselves on the trade block: Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, James Paxton, and Zack Greinke. It’s understandable. Those are some of the biggest stars in the game and the chance that any of them will change uniforms before Spring Training is bound to get attention.
But the best trades are the ones that make sense for both teams, but still seemingly come from nowhere. Then everyone sits back and says, yeah, why didn’t I think of that. It’s rare that both teams come out of a trade where you’re forced to admit everyone wins. The one I’m about to propose fits that bill.
New York Yankees get Carlos Santana, Philadelphia Phillies get Sonny Gray
Now, here’s why this works out for both teams.
From the Yankees perspective, first base has been a black hole ever since Mark Teixeira retired, and to be honest, Teixeira’s last couple of seasons weren’t why he has an outside shot at the Hall of Fame. Here’s a list of everyone who has started at first over the past two seasons:
- Chris Carter
- Greg Bird
- Chase Headley
- Garrett Cooper
- Austin Romine
- Tyler Austin
- Matt Holliday
- Ji-Man Choi
- Rob Refsnyder
- Gary Sanchez
- Neil Walker
- Luke Voit
- Brandon Drury
As the saying goes, if you have 13 first basemen, you don’t have any first baseman. I know the Yankees are still saying that Voit is getting first crack at cementing himself as the everyday guy, and that they still think Bird has a high ceiling. But when your goal is surpassing the Red Sox, can you really afford to go into the season with a major question mark at one of the premier offensive positions on any team? Especially given the unsettled nature of the middle infield?
Santana is not a guy who is spectacular. He is, however, as steady a player as they come. You know what to expect from him: somewhere in the neighborhood of a .250 average, 25-25 homers, 80 RBI, 100 walks, an OPS+ of around 110, somewhere around 2.5bWAR. Right now, a steady and slightly better than league average switch-hitting bat sounds pretty good. Add in that Santana has postseason experience, and this begins to look even better.
The Phillies rolled the dice by signing Santana to a 3 year, $60 million contract last offseason and came up snake eyes. It’s not a knock on Santana. He did what he always does. But the fanbase was thinking more Joey Votto for that kind of money. To make matters worse, the signing forced up-and-coming slugger Rhys Hoskins to left field, where he proved to be the league’s worst defensive outfielder. It took at-bats away from young outfielders Nick Williams and Aaron Altherr (particularly from Altherr), setting their development back.
Simply unloading the remaining 2 years and $40 million owed Santana makes this a win for the Phils, who’ve made no secret they want out from that contract.
Unloading the contract for the much maligned Yankee starter also shores up a need for the Phillies: a reliable starting pitcher. Yes, Gray stunk when he took the bump at Yankee Stadium. But he still managed a 3.17 ERA away from the Bronx. He still has the tools that made him an All-Star in Oakland, but like many before him (Hello Ed Whitson? Carl Pavano?) he could not get past Yankee Stadium. The change of scenery might be all needs to turn his career back around. If not, then the Phils are only on the hook for one more year.
See? Everyone wins this trade!
The Boston Red Sox have won the World Series, claiming their 4th championship since 2004. Congratulations to them. But now begins the long winter of baseball’s offseason, and every other team’s jockeying for position to knock them off.
The Yankees had a good season. Despite a rash of injuries to key players and underperformance from others, they still won 100 games and the wild card. Unfortunately, Boston won 108. So how do you improve what is already a really good team by 9 more wins? That’s the question that Brian Cashman will have to answer over the next 5 months.
It’s no secret where the Yankees need to improve. The principal difference between the top two teams in the AL East (and Houston, who won 103 games in the West) is the starting rotations. Boston and Houston had much better starting pitching than the Yankees all season, and the result showed in the final standings and in the playoffs. What’s more, the Yankees are looking at losing 3 of their starting pitchers to free agency. Boston has 1 and Houston has 2 pitchers set to hit the market.
But the offseason challenges don’t end there. Those 3 pitchers are part of at least 11 players (and possibly 12) who could leave the Bronx for other green pastures. It also doesn’t include the fate of SP Sonny Gray, an ace pitcher who has proven to have Ed Whitson disease. In other words, Cashman & Co. could well be looking at replacing 52% of the roster over the winter, while maintaining relevancy. Now add in injuries to SS Didi Gregorius, an uncertain situation at first base, an overcrowded outfield and perhaps the best free agent class in history, and this has the making of being one of the most entertaining hot stove seasons in a long, long time.
Starting Pitching: Only two starters are guaranteed to return, Luis Severino and Masahiro Tanaka. Despite Severino’s well-documented struggles in the second half last season, I believe he will bounce back perfectly fine next year. His issues stem from two sources, I think: first was a hangover effect from the increased workload in 2017 (it isn’t an uncommon occurrence in baseball). The other is that multiple other teams said Sevy has a habit of tipping his pitches. I don’t care what you throw, if the other guy knows what’s coming he can hit it. Tanaka has managed to pitch his entire career with an elbow ligament that threatens to snap apart on every pitch. Will this be the year it finally does? Suffice it to say, the Yankees need at least 5 more quality starting options before breaking camp.
The most intriguing possibility is the Giants’ Madison Bumgarner. The Giants look poised to engage in a total rebuild, and Bumgarner is a quality ace with a proven record of pitching his best when the lights are brightest. If they make him available, the Yankees should go all in on him. Sonny Gray could be the centerpiece of this trade. Even though he demonstrated a severe case of the yips when pitching at Yankee Stadium, he did pitch to a 3.17 ERA and 1.155 WHIP on the road, and his best years came across SF bay in Oakland. Both Bumgarner and Gray are 29 years old, and both remain under team control through 2019. On paper, it’s a good match.
Other trade targets could include Zack Greinke, Tyler Chatwood, Jacob DeGrom, Noah Syndergaard, and Zach Wheeler. As for free agents, everyone expects the Yanks to go hard after Patrick Corbin, an NY kid who had a breakout season in 2018. Also, expect the team to work hard to resign JA Happ, and if that fails, then to turn to beg CC Sabathia to come back. The other top FA options include Dallas Keuchel, Charlie Morton, Nathan Eovaldi, and Gio Gonzales. There’s also the possibility Clayton Kershaw opts out of his contract, and Cole Hamels will probably be bought out of his. There is also a bevy of kids in the high minors who can serve as either trade or depth pieces. There will certainly be plenty to choose from, which means none of us should ever be subjected to the “Luis Cessa Experience” again.
Bullpen: The Yankees rode a historic bullpen to those 100 wins last season. The “four closers” (Aroldis Chapman, Dellin Betances, Zach Britton, and David Robertson) combined for 211 innings, 44 saves, a 1.066 WHIP and 320 strikeouts. Now, Robertson and Britton are both scheduled to hit free agency, and it seems likely that given the dearth of good closers in MLB these days, both will be able to find jobs as the closer for a new team.
Fortunately, quality bullpen arms seem to be the one constant the Yankees farm system churns out. Look for kids like Chance Adams, Tommy Kahnle, Steven Tarpley, JP Feyereisen, Cole Coshow, and Ben Heller to get a chance to fill in. At the same time, you can expect Chad Green and Jonathan Holder to move up in the pecking order. All in all, this is the one part of the team the Yankee brain trust doesn’t need to think too hard over, nor do they need to worry about allocating lots of money to fix it.
Catching: The Yankees know they’ll be returning the same catchers as in 2018. Gary Sanchez will be the starter, backed up by Austin Romine. The good news is that Romine has rounded out into a quality backup backstop, the kind of guy you can play 85-90 times a year and not get a headache from it.
The bad news is Sanchez was one of the most disappointing players for the Yankees last year. A combination of injuries, bad luck, and attitude contributed to what was easily the young catcher’s worst season. If he can turn it around (and the talent that nearly won him a ROY in a half season is still there), the Yankees have a building block. If not, they have a decision to make. But that looks to be something for next offseason, not this one.
Infield: Perhaps no area of the team will require more attention than the infield. As mentioned, Didi Gregorius injury in the last playoff game will have him sitting until at least September of 2019, leaving a huge hole at shortstop. Miguel Andujar may well win this year’s ROY, but his defense was among the league’s worst at 3B. Gleyber Torres was as good as advertised at second base, but Greg Bird disappeared among more injuries and anemic production and may be facing the end of his road. Luke Voit, former St. Louis castoff, came over and provided a needed boost at first base – but can the Yankees count on him to be the answer? They tried to build Bird’s career from a cameo in 2015 – and three years later we’re still waiting.
Of course, the name on everyone’s list of infielders is Manny Machado. The erstwhile Oriole and Dodger may have played his way out of the Bronx with his postseason antics, though. Nobody argues with the talent, but Manny has demonstrated that he is very much a selfish player. That’s an attitude that simply will not mesh with the Yankee way. One thing this generation of Steinbrenners does not want is a return to the Bronx Zoo days of the 1970’s.
So, what to do? I suggest the Yankees get bold. The other mega free agent available is Bryce Harper. I suggest the Yankees sign Harper, but not for the outfield. To play first. Yes, you heard that right. his left-handed bat will help balance the lineup, his dynamism will add an athletic component that was largely missing last year and while there have been questions about his maturity in the past, his down year last year came largely from him not trying to put up huge numbers but help his decimated team win. Next, I would move Andujar into a 3B/OF role with the idea of him taking the bulk of LF reps by the next All-Star break. Then, I would go after this year’s Swiss Army knife player, Marwin Gonzalez, primarily to play short, but also to get reps at 3B and as needed elsewhere. Once Gregorius is back, Gonzalez moves permanently to third and Andujar becomes the regular left fielder.
Those moves also free up Bird and/or Voit to become available in a trade for a starting pitcher, where they might have more value to the Yankees. Depth would also be improved, as the Yankees have plenty of well-regarded utility types down on the farm, led by #16 overall prospect Thairo Estrada, along with Tyler Wade and Ronald Torreyes.
Outfield: What do you do when you have 5 former All-Stars, and a consensus top 50 prospect, for three positions?
That is the dilemma facing the Yankee brass when it comes to the outfield. Suffice it to say none of Aaron Judge, Aaron Hicks, or Giancarlo Stanton are going anywhere. Look for all three to reprise their roles in right field, center field and as the primary DH, respectively.
That leaves at least three (and if the Yanks adopt my Andujar plan, four) players to squeeze into one spot. So how to do this?
First is through attrition but in different ways.
Brett Gardner has patrolled left field for the Yanks since 2008. He is the last of the 2009 champions still on the team, but the Yankees have until Wednesday to decide whether to exercise the buyout or renew the contract for $12.5 million. Here’s the thing: how much do you pay for intangibles, like leadership, hustle, and grit? Because that’s about all Gardy has left in the tank. He still wants to play – and he thinks he still can – but the results are no longer showing up on the field. My guess is we’ve seen the last of Gardner in Pinstripes until a future Old-Timer’s Day.
The other player whose time has passed is Jacoby Ellsbury, the incredibly disappearing and enigmatic center fielder. I realize the Yankees don’t want to admit signing him was a terrible mistake, and I know they don’t want to eat the remaining $47.5 million on his contract. But here’s the thing: the guy can’t stay healthy enough to even take batting practice, he can’t play anywhere but center (and that poorly), can’t throw, can’t steal bases anymore. His contract is a sunk cost. Better to pay him to go away then pay him to take up an even more valuable roster spot, especially now that the team is finally under the salary cap.
That leaves Clint Frazier as the fourth outfielder. The uber-prospect suffered through a dismal season last year, stemming from a concussion suffered near the end of Spring Training. In limited action (54 games) in the minors, Frazier didn’t show too many ill effects, hitting .305 with a .950 OPS. He should be fine in 2019.
So, here’s my projected (wished for?), waaaay-too early Opening Day 2019 roster:
CF: Aaron Hicks
RF: Aaron Judge
1B: Bryce Harper
DH: Giancarlo Stanton
C: Gary Sanchez
3B: Miguel Andujar
SS: Marwin Gonzalez
LF: Clint Frazier
2B: Gleyber Torres
UT: Tyler Wade
UT: Ronald Torreyes
IF: Luke Voit
SP: Luis Severino
SP: Madison Bumgarner
SP: JA Happ
SP: Masahiro Tanaka
SP: Patrick Corbin
CL: Aroldis Chapman
RP: Dellin Betances
RP: Chad Green
RP: Jonathon Holder
RP: Tommy Kahnle
RP: Chance Adams
Two issues have dominated this offseason. First, and the one most fans are paying attention to, is the number of quality players that remain unsigned. Second is the commissioner office’s attempt to address professional baseball’s slowing pace of play, most startlingly by adding a clock to a game that’s never had one. What everyone is missing is that both those problems are children of one problem that nobody is talking about: zombie franchises.
What is a zombie franchise? A zombie franchise is an organization that seems forever stuck in baseball purgatory. Never quite good enough to contend for a championship, these teams become the homes of what were once called “AAAA” players, but are today usually referred to as “replacement level players.” They’re identified by keeping their major league payroll low, the quality of play only slightly better than a good AAA team and for shipping out their decent players in the continual rebuild. The people who own these teams are not to be blamed for this; after all, like any business they need to turn a profit. The players union isn’t responsible for the situation, either – after all, it’s sole reason for being is to protect the jobs of those men lucky enough to call themselves professional baseball players.
But zombie franchises slow the pace of play down by fielding inferior teams. Seriously, try to watch a game between, say. the Reds and Marlins. You’ll need massive doses of caffeine just to make it to the third inning. Most of the pitchers on these teams would either be toiling in the minor leagues or out of pro ball entirely. The same goes for many of the position players. Either they simply lack the talent to compete with their peers, lack the seasoning that comes with proper time in the minor leagues or were once capable major league players just playing out the string. The result is pitchers who cannot throw quality strikes and hitters who can’t hit quality pitches (or lay off bad ones), fielders who make ridiculous mental errors and teams in general that need tons of in-game coaching just to play nine innings. No wonder the games are not only taking longer, the amount of time between each play is taking longer. Now throw in a lot of time where nothing is happening (after all, what is less exciting than a two out, bases empty 6 pitch walk?), and the commissioner is right to be concerned.
This is also affecting the current free agent and trade markets. Players who were king dogs on their old teams are discovering that they just aren’t good enough to justify the type of money they were led to believe they deserve. Mike Moustakas is a nice player. Lefty bat, some home run power, solid if unspectacular defender. Same goes for his former teammate, Eric Hosmer. JD Martinez? Good hitter, lousy defender, slow as molasses runner. They are all universally regarded as good, but complimentary, players. If your team is only going to win 70 games without them, none of those guys is going to to suddenly turn you into a pennant contender. For a pennant contender, they play positions that aren’t needed. But these guys have heard for two or three years now that they’re “franchise players” in the media, from their agents, from their former teams. So it’s understandable that a Martinez is looking for 6 years at $25 million each. It has to be hard for him to hear from teams now that he isn’t that good.
The same goes for the free agent pitchers. The reason teams loaded up on middle relievers at the beginning of free agency is simple: the starting pitching market isn’t very good. The top two available, Jake Arrieta and Yu Darvish, are good pitchers but hardly great. Neither would be called an “ace” on a contender. Arrieta has been around for 8 years. In that time, he’s posted two very good seasons (the last three seasons ago), two slightly better than average years – and four seasons that wavered between bad and horrendous. As for Darvish, he can strike guys out. But when he isn’t striking out hitters, they’re hitting him and hitting him HARD (see his postseason history). Again, both guys aren’t bad, but neither is worth 7 years and $200 million.
Part of the problem for these guys is they get so many opportunities against zombie franchises, which lets them pad their stats. Darvish got to pitch 22 times against a zombie franchise in 2017, going 8-7 with a 3.49 ERA, and 83 OPS+ allowed, while averaging almost 7 innings per start – good (although not exceptional) stats. He made 9 starts against actual contenders, going 2-5 with a 4.86 ERA and 131 OPS+ allowed. Not surprisingly, he was generally gone before the 6th inning in those games. As for Moustakas, he batted .283/.317/.537 in 347 at bats against zombie franchises, while hitting .248/.291/.489 in 251 at bats against contenders.
If I’m a GM, I’m looking a lot more closely at those numbers against contenders than against the zombie teams. Why? Well, as we saw in the postseason, Darvish is much closer to the 4.86 ERA pitcher in terms of talent than the 3.49 ERA. Moustakas is closer to the .780 OPS talent than a .850 talent. And that’s how I’m going to pay them.
So how does baseball solve this problem? It seems the best way would be to contract the size of the leagues, probably by four teams. We’ve seen for almost two decades now that teams in Florida just do not work. The Marlins and Rays have never drawn fans. Oakland hasn’t been able to for over 30 years. How can baseball honestly say having teams, especially bad teams, in those cities is doing anyone any good? Other teams ownership groups probably need to be looked at closely, those for the New York Mets, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, San Diego and Baltimore. Teams that have not indicated an interest in actually trying to contend for a title, despite being in markets that historically have supported their teams.
This would obviously get tons of pushback. For starters, the players would hate it, because going from 30 to 26 teams would mean 100 fewer jobs for their number. The owners would hate it, because it’s essentially telling people who have been successful in their other endeavors that they’ve failed in the most public of forums.
But, there might be an easier way to address this problem – one that appeases the players and let’s some owners realize nobody’s ego can be greater than the health of the game. Baseball has a de facto salary cap, the “competitive balance tax.” The payroll level at which the tax applies was negotiated in the most recent collective bargaining agreement (for this year, it’s $197 million. Next year, $206 million). The reason this is acting in the same fashion as a hard salary cap is that every dollar over that limit is taxed at increasing amounts, depending on how many years a team has been over the limit – up to 50%. Now, this hurts players who might be targets of the teams that traditionally spend large amounts – the Yankees, Dodgers, Cubs, White Sox – because those teams not only don’t think that Todd Frazier or Eduardo Nunez is worth $13 million a year, they especially don’t think paying a Frazier, et al., a 50% premium adds any value to their team.
What the players should have done was bargained for a payroll floor. I think it could be established along the same lines as the competitive balance tax. Require every team to have a payroll that is at least 50% of the tax threshold (for this year, that would be $98.5 million) and for every dollar they are below that lower limit, fine them a sliding scale amount based on how many consecutive years they’ve been below that level. Do it over a three year period: 20% of the difference in the first year, 50% for year two and 100% for years three and on. Now here’s the thing: those “for the good of the game” clauses the commissioner is threatening to use to install a clock are the same ones he can use to install a payroll floor.
Why is this important? This season alone, 10 teams are currently projected to have payrolls below $98.5 million. Only one – Minnesota is expected to be a contender, and they’re less than $2 million below the proposed payroll floor. The other 9 teams are not only pretenders, they’re not even pretending that they’re anything other than pretenders. If you think otherwise, ask yourself who’s a better player, Mike Moustakas or Maikel Franco. Ask yourself if you would rather have Jake Arrieta or Tim Adelman anchoring your rotation. While we’ve established that guys like Moustakas and Arrieta are not the franchise cornerstones worthy of their contract demands, they are infinitely better than some of the players who do have jobs.
So, some of the marginal players currently employed for no reason other than they’re really cheap would be forced out of the game, or back into the minor leagues. Fans in cities that are lamenting their teams dumping quality players because they make too much would have some hope. Pace and quality of play improves, simply by having better players on the field. And the insanity of trying to turn baseball into basketball with wooden clubs ends.
For ownership, it would force a reckoning. Any fanbase can understand a season or two of mediocrity in the event a total rebuild is needed. They’ve looked around baseball and seen the Astros, Cubs, Yankees, Rockies and Diamondbacks do just that and field high-quality teams. What no fanbase should expect is that the owners of their team will continually put subpar talent on the field in the name of controlling costs. Quite frankly, in an industry that shares profits and raked in over $9 billion, there is no excuse for any ownership group not to be able to make a profit with a $98.5 million payroll.
If they can’t – they don’t deserve to own a team.
As a result of the Brian Cashman’s moves in December (trading Starlin Castro for Giancarlo Stanton; trading Chase Headley for Jabari Blash), the Yankees find themselves without a credible veteran presence at second and third base. The current starters would likely come from a trio of rookies: Gleyber Torres, Miguel Andujar and Tyler Wade, along with the possibility of utility player Ronald Torreyes of earning a starting shot in Spring Training. The question is, can a team hoping to reach the World Series in October live to get there while playing multiple rookies?
Last season, the team won 91 games with Castro and Headley playing regularly. In addition to breakout seasons from the two Aarons (Judge and Hicks), it has to be noted that the Yankees received above normal production from both of the since departed infielders. Headley posted a 100 OPS+, an advance over the 94 he had posted over the previous three seasons. Castro provided a 106 OPS+, even more substantially above the 97 aggregate for his previous three years than Headley’s sudden offensive output. Yet, despite those improvements in offense over previous years, both players were essentially league average. Defensive metrics weren’t kind to both players, either: Headley posted a -11 DRS at third, while Castro limped to -8 DRS at second. Really, replacing these two former Yankees with simply league average production, both offensively and defensively, would actually mark an improvement from 2017.
Another factor to consider is the Yankees well and often stated desire to drop below the $197 million salary tax threshold and how any available veterans would fit into that framework. Let’s take a look at some of the names who’ve been rumored to possibly heading to the Yankees.
- Josh Harrison, Pirates: Harrison provides adequate defense at both second and third, along with the ability to play both outfield corners. He also brings better than average contact skills, striking out in only 15% of his plate appearances over the past three seasons. He’s also in the last year of his contract, owed a little under $12 million (including team buyouts of options), which might be doable. But he’s only managed a 95 OPS+ over the last three years, and Pittsburgh will want a decent prospect return for one of their more valuable players.
- Todd Frazier, Free Agent: The Yankees have familiarity with Frazier, having swung a deadline trade for him last year. I think many Yankee fans would love to see Frazier return, as he proved to not only be an excellent defender, but gave the team a much needed lift in both the clubhouse and the lineup. He also brings some defensive versatility, although metrics aren’t kind to his glovework at first base. But Frazier is looking for a multi-year contract, will be entering his age 32 season and while he has averaged a 110 OPS+ and 34 homers over the last three seasons, his production is already declining. It’s hard to see him agreeing to take a pay cut from the $15 million he earned last year on a short term contract, and I doubt the Yankees are looking to make a long term commitment to a player who’s shown declining production.
- Mike Moustakas, Free Agent: By all accounts, Moustakas would bring many of the same team leadership traits as Frazier. He’s also three years younger and profiles as better offensive threat than Frazier, having averaged a 117 OPS+ over the past three years with his production on an upswing. No doubt his lefty power would play well in Yankee Stadium and provide a valuable counterweight to the Yankees predominately right handed line-up. While his defense isn’t quite the caliber of Frazier or Harrison, nor does he provide any defensive versatility, he also isn’t a liability with the glove at third. In short, he would be a massive upgrade over Headley. But he is represented by Scott Boras, the one agent who’s known for extracting maximum contracts for his players. A 6 year, $120 million contract for Moustakas seems reasonable, but such a contract would blow apart the Yankees budget.
- Manny Machado, Orioles: This one strikes me as far-fetched. It’s arguable that he is the best third baseman in the game today. Even if the Yankees could somehow convince the Orioles to trade their best player within the division, there are a couple of additional roadblocks. First, Machado wants to return to shortstop, his original position – but the Yankees already have an all-star caliber shortstop, who also happens to be a team leader, in Didi Gregorius. Second, Machado is in the last year of his contract and is widely expected to receive a contract next year that would dwarf Giancaralo Stanton’s. While I suspect the Yankees could make Machado a very happy third baseman by giving him a 10 year, $400 million contract extension (not unreasonable, no matter how crazy that sounds), that would absolutely blow away any hopes of getting back under the salary cap this year.
- Jed Lowrie, A’s: To me, giving up prospects for Lowrie would be a waste of resources. The veteran is entering his age 34 season, has had trouble staying on the field and only sports a league average bat (102 OPS+). While he is capable of playing third, second or short, the only position he’s played decently over recent seasons is second. The only positive he brings to the conversation is that he’s only owed $8 million on an expiring contract.
- Yangveris Solarte: Solarte broke into the majors with the Yankees in 2014 and became an immediate feel-good story. The he was traded (ironically, for Chase Headley) midseason and since then has been, well, Chase Headley. While Solarte can play third, second or first, his glovework hovers between statuesque and terrible while only wielding a 105 OPS+. The only positive he brings to the equation is he won’t reach free agency until 2020, but that seems like something that would be more useful to a team like the Marlins than the Yankees.
So, back to the Yankees in-house options. Torres is the big name here. He is currently the second-ranked prospect in all of professional baseball and, despite only being 21 years old, seemed ticketed to making his major league debut last year. Nobody has much doubt about his talent level. The questions regard seasoning; he only has 96 AAA at bats and 139 in AA. Not even 300 professional at bats in the two highest major league levels would mean a lot of learning in the major leagues. Not that a player with Torres’ talent level is incapable of making that jump; after all, the Red Sox Rafael Devers played extremely well with similar minor league experience before coming up. A bigger question might be his defense, and again strictly from an experience standpoint. To date, Torres only has 83 professional innings at second base, which would be his presumed position in the Bronx. Again, it’s not a question of talent. But a second baseman who has only turned two double plays in his life poses a lot of questions about how well he can handle the position.
Andujar may be the most intriguing player in the bunch. Originally signed in 2012, he finally started to put it all together in 2016. Last year was something of a breakout year for him. Most scouts aren’t worried about his ability to hit major league pitching (in a one game call-up, he went 3-4 with 4 RBI). Rather, the questions surround the third baseman’s ability to field his position. However, it isn’t a question of physical tools. Andujar has above average arm strength and range. Rather, he has a troubling tendency to make mental errors and rush plays, which have contributed to a subpar .917 career fielding percentage. It should be noted that his defense has been steadily improving over each of the past three seasons.
Wade rode the Scranton Shuttle more than any other Yankees prospect last season, managing to get into 30 games with the big club. He is the most versatile player on this list, able to play 7 positions. While he undeniably flopped in the majors last year, it should also be noted he entered the season as the Yankees #17 prospect and was scheduled to play his first full season in AAA. He brings an interesting mix of offensive skills to the table, with consistent doubles power (that might translate into a few more homers with experience) and blinding speed.
Finally, there’s Torreyes. He’s spent the last two seasons as the Yankees utility player, playing second, third, short and taking a few turns in the outfield. While he’s one of those guys you love to root for (and the shortest man to play baseball not named Altuve), there’s a reason he’s been a utility player and not a starter. While he plays numerous positions passably, he isn’t terrific at any of them. As for his offensive skills, that career 81 OPS+ says about all you need to know.
My guess is that while a veteran infielder certainly makes some sense, it isn’t an area of absolute need for these Yankees. If something falls into their laps, terrific. But I don’t see them jumping into a bidding war for any of the available free agents, and I don’t see them going crazy to make a deal for any of the trade candidates. I suspect the season will open with Andujar at third, Torres at second and Torreyes retaining his utility role, with Wade in Scranton to work on his game. By midseason, should either of the youngsters find themselves floundering, the same resources the Yankees have available now will be available then. And odds are, the same cast of available options will be there, as well.
It was safe to say that at the end of the 2017 season, Jacoby Ellsbury had become the major league’s all-time highest paid 4th outfielder. The emergence of Aaron Hicks, who finally began to fulfill the promise that made him a first-round draft choice of the Twins, the MVP caliber season of Aaron Judge and the continued steady play of Brett Gardner had relegated Ellsbury to the bench. During the magical playoff run, Ellsbury became little more than an afterthought.
Still, Ellsbury did make some important contributions with his legs down the stretch, so you could sort of understand his refusal to waive his no-trade clause. Better to be on a potential World Series winner, even in a bench role, than starting for a team going nowhere.
Then, the Yankees did the most Yankee thing of all: they traded for the
NL MVP. Just like that, Ellsbury went from the 4th outfielder to a player without any clear role. A very well paid player without any role, who still insists on not waiving his no-trade clause. And…I do mean no role. I suppose he would be useful as a pinch runner in the late innings. But really, how often are the Yankees going to find themselves with Greg Bird or Gary Sanchez standing on second in a tie game in the 8th or 9th inning?
Let’s face it, as fans we all feared Ellsbury’s decline at the end of that massive contract he signed prior to the 2014 season. We just had no idea how quickly that decline would come, or how dramatic it would be. Over the past three seasons, he has struggled to an 89 OPS+, while injuries have held him out of 114 games. Even what was once his best asset, an ability to swipe bases seemingly at will has slipped. He’s totaled only 63 steals and watched his steal percentage drop from 85% to 74%. Defensively, he’s lost some range but can still be a serviceable center fielder. He would probably be better suited to left, because of his throwing issues. We don’t know because he’s refused to even try playing there.
At the same time, his presence on the roster is making it impossible for the Yankees to get an extended look at several of their top outfield prospects, kids like Clint Frazier and Billy McKinney. In other words, Ellsbury has become a luxury item that you might have found a spot for on a National League team in the 1970’s. But not an American League team in the 2010’s.
I think it’s fair to say that Ellsbury has reached Mark Teixeira/Alex Rodriguez territory: an overpriced, aging player that the Yankees will pay to make go away. Already there are reports that Yankees are willing to eat a substantial amount of the money owed him, as much as $40 million of the $68.5 million on his contract. If I were Ellsbury, I would be on the phone with my agent daily, finding me a place to play. Because while Ellsbury can probably force his way onto the 2018 roster by means of his contract, I doubt he’ll be in the Bronx past that. In fact, he would be the best paid unemployed man in America next offseason. And he shouldn’t be under any illusions about this. After all, the Yankees paid A-Rod $42 million to go home – and Ellsbury isn’t half the player he was.
…should be to dump Jacoby Ellsbury and as much of the $68.5 million he’s owed, for whatever they can get. A big of peanuts would be acceptable. And then after that? Nothing.
This might sound like something of a letdown to my fellow Yankee fans. After all, the stated goal is to win the World Series. But that’s the stated goal every year, and by doing nothing else this offseason, the team would be primed for a five or six year run. The type of run reminiscent of the 1996-2001 team.
Let’s review: this past season, the Yankees rode a home-run happy offense, a strong starting rotation and dominant bullpen to within one game of the fall classic. Youngsters Aaron Judge, Gary Sanchez, Greg Bird, Aaron Hicks, Didi Gregorius and Clint Frazier powered the offense. Jordan Montgomery, Sonny Gray, Luis Severino, Masahiro Tanaka and Chad Green anchored the pitching staff. Those 11 players, all under 28 years old, provide a strong core to build around for both the present and the future. Now, this offseason, the Yankees stunned the world by acquiring the NL MVP, Giancarlo Stanton (age 28) and his 59 home runs in exchange for Starlin Castro.
Before that move, the favorites in the American League were the Yankees and the Houston Astros and that remains the case now. Yes, the Red Sox and Indians remain strong contenders, but both of those teams have enough questions that they do not appear ready to challenge the top two teams. Given that dynamic, I can understand the Yankees fan desire to maybe grab a third baseman and another starting pitcher. If one falls into their laps, okay – but here’s why I wouldn’t go crazy looking right now.
With an eye to the present and the future, the Yankees have a trio of rookies they can try at second and third in Gleyber Torres, Miguel Andujar and Tyler Wade. While it would be atypical of the “Yankee Way,” I would play Torres and Andujar on opening day and let Wade fill a super utility role. Based on their minor league careers and pedigrees, it’s a little hard to imagine all three turning into major league pumpkins. Since they would likely hit at the bottom of the order, any offensive struggles wouldn’t impair the juggernaut the Yankees have assembled throughout the rest of the lineup. If they can excel, then the Yankees have found some diamonds and next offseason can be spent on luxury items (Bryce Harper? Clayton Kershaw?). If they look as lost as lambs, then the Yankees can use their payroll flexibility to go after necessities (say, Manny Machado and DJ LeMahieu). If they’re simply better than average players, they can be spun for value in trades for other pieces, while going after superstar talent to replace them.
Therein lies the biggest reason for dumping Ellsbury. Whether the Yankees go into next offseason looking for extra goodies or to address vital needs, they’ll probably look to add somewhere north of $50 million in AAV. When you add in the salaries for their existing core, there really is no room to pay a 5th outfielder $23 million, while retaining enough flexibility to make further moves as the years go by. Again, this isn’t just about winning in 2018. It’s about winning in 2018, 2019, 2020, 2021 – and so on.
As far as 2018 goes, the Yankees lineup (even with two rookies starting daily) is every bit as potent as Houston’s, and decidedly better than Boston or Cleveland’s. The starting staff, including the minor league depth, lines up favorably with Boston and Cleveland and is a step above Houston’s. The key is to maintain that position this year and see how far we can go, while setting up to get a talent base that eclipses everyone else by 2019.
Last night, word broke that the Yankees have chosen Aaron Boone as their next manager. My first reaction, like so many others (based on what I saw on Twitter) was that Brian, Hal and the gang had their holidays mixed up and thought yesterday was April 1. My reactions after seesawed between amazement and anger. If the most critical factor was that Brian Cashman can trust him because he came clean about tearing up his knee in a pickup basketball game 14 years ago, the team’s standards have dropped precipitously since George died.
Aaron Boone could turn out to be the next Casey Stengel. I truly hope he is. Like Boone, the Ol’ Perfessor was amiable, handled the press well and built a managing career from a bonehead move as a player.
Or, he could turn out to be the next Bucky Dent. Casey, of course, is in the Hall of Fame. Bucky, like Boone, was a middling player who is most remembered for one improbable home run. The Yankees gave him a chance to manage in 1989. It was a disaster, a debacle, an absolute horror show. And Dent had one thing Boone lacks: actual experience managing a professional baseball team.
Boone might also turn out to be the next Bill Dickey. Like Stengel, Dickey is in the hall of fame and has his number retired in Monument Park. Unlike Stengel, it was for his career as a player that he is enshrined. Dickey was the last player-manager the Yankees hired, and also the last manager the Yankees hired without any prior coaching experience. He took over a talented, young Yankee team (with future Hall of Fame players Joe DiMaggio, Phil Rizzuto, Joe Gordon and Yogi Berra) when Joe McCarthy decided he’d had enough of the front office’s meddling and quit 5 weeks into the 1946 campaign. Dickey only managed a third place finish, despite the talent he had on the team, and when owner Larry McPhail made it obvious Dickey wouldn’t be asked back in 1947, he quit with two weeks left in the season.
Hal Steinbrenner is trusting his general manager implicitly with this choice, and both he and Cashman are betting against all logic and history with Aaron Boone. The last rookie manager to win a World Series title was Bob Brenly in 2001, with Arizona. The Diamondbacks weren’t a young team, though. In all of baseball history, only 4 men have won a title in their first year managing: Brenly, Ralph Houk in 1961, Eddie Dyer in 1946 and Bucky Harris in 1924. By the way, Harris is the only man to ever win a World Series despite having never managed or coached a game in his life.
Make no mistake here: Cashman, who never met a statistic he couldn’t recite, knows everything I wrote above and probably a whole lot more about those failures, about how rookie managers tend to struggle even with experienced teams and coaching staffs. He isn’t betting so much that Aaron Boone is somehow magically imbued with enough baseball intelligence to overcome that history and lead this team to a championship.
No, Brian Cashman is betting that his own baseball intelligence and his faith in sabermetrics will win the Yankees their 28th World Championship. What Cashman needed was a mouthpiece, a stooge and (if everything falls apart) a potential fall guy. Boone checks off all those boxes beautifully. Anyone who has actually listened to Boone’s inanity during a broadcast will realize he’s a gleeful idiot. The writers know it; the fans know it. If the Yankees win, it will vindicate Cashman’s belief that systems win, not people. If systems are no better than the people running them… Well, Boone was hired to be a patsy.
Compounding the problem is that the Yankees are, by and large, a very young team. Their projected starting nine will average less than 3.5 years of major league playing experience. Communication with the media is undoubtedly an important skill in New York, and that’s the one area where Joe Girardi was severely deficient. But it isn’t the most crucial aspect of managing. The Yankees are gambling the development of their talented, young core on a guy who has never developed anything except the ability to eat hot dogs at the Little League World Series. But again, Boone isn’t being hired to manage this team. He’s being hired as little more than a pre- and post-game announcer. You can bet everything from line-up decisions to pitching changes will be phoned in from the front office on a daily basis.
Yes, Yankee fans. George Steinbrenner certainly engaged in some serious power tripping when he was alive. But not even George never went on a power trip like the one Brian Cashman is embarking on now.
The other day, I posted some thoughts on potential Yankees front office changes (and only got half my projections right!). But before the hot stove season can really begin, first you need to clean out the oven. So here we go: which of these players, all free agents or potential trade candidates, do you keep for 2018? And which ones would you say good-bye to? Keep in mind, you need to get the team’s payroll under the luxury tax threshold of $189 million. Ready?
Masahiro Tanaka, Starting pitcher (13-12, 4.79 ERA, 178 1/3 IP)
Verdict: Let Him Walk Away
Tanaka is an unusual case. For starters, he’s not actually a free agent – yet. His contract does allow him to opt out, though, and most everyone expects him to, despite 2017 easily being his worst MLB season. Although he struck out more batters per inning than at any point in his career, he allowed more baserunners and home runs than at any point in his career, too. Then there is the well-known matter of his damaged UCL. It’s held up well over the past 2 1/2 years, but he is only one awkward pitch from needing Tommy John surgery. Tanaka proved during September and the Yankees postseason run that he can still be a dominating pitcher. But should he opt out, that means he’s looking for a raise on the $67 million he would get over the next three seasons. With youngsters Chance Adams, Justus Sheffield, Domingo Acevedo and the like ready, or nearly ready, for their time in pinstripes, the verdict on this is easy.
CC Sabathia, Starting Pitcher (14-5, 3.69 ERA, 148 2/3IP)
Verdict: 1 year, $15 million contract
Since coming to the Yankees in 2009, Sabathia has successfully transformed himself from fireballing lefty to crafty lefty. Injuries and Father Time have taken their toll, but his 9 years in Pinstripes have been memorable. Perhaps more important than his pitching acumen, however, is the respect he garners in the clubhouse and the mentoring role he’s taken on with the younger pitchers. I think CC can match his Yankees career averages in wins (13) and ERA+ (114). Combine the on field production with the off the field intangibles, and resigning him makes sense. Helpful in this case are that CC has said he wants to play one more year, wants to finish his career in the Bronx and isn’t looking for a giant payday, and this makes even more sense.
Michael Pineda, Starting Pitcher (8-4, 4.39 ERA, 96 1/3 IP)
Verdict: Wave Good-bye!
Pineda’s Yankee career can best be described as an enigma wrapped in a riddle. Few pitchers in the last 20 years have matched his stuff, along with his ability to limit walks and strike out opposing hitters, yet get hit as hard and as often as him. When the Yankees acquired him for Jesus Montero (remember him), it looked like a blockbuster trade. Instead, both Seattle and the Yankees got burned by this one. But last season looked like Pineda had finally turned the corner. He was pitching well, and then *BOOM* his elbow gave way. Ordinarily, a pitcher with his type of injury and talent might be offered a two year, “make good” contract. But this Yankees team has enough pitching depth in the minors that blocking any of them for a questionable player is, well, stupid.
Jaime Garcia, Starting/Relief Pitcher (5-10, 4.41 ERA, 157IP overall; 0-3, 4.82 ERA, 37 IP w/ Yankees)
Verdict: Don’t let the door hit you…
The Yankees acquired Garcia primarily because they wanted a pitcher to absorb innings at the back of the rotation. Coming down the stretch last year, surprising rookie Jordan Montgomery was approaching his innings limit and the brass figured Garcia could help out in that department. The epitome of a journeyman (the Yankees were his third team in a week), Garcia failed to live up to even the modest expectations the brass had for him. He averaged less than 5 innings per start and wound up taxing the bullpen; those extra innings pitched by Yankee relievers down the stretch might well have been part of the reason they ran out of gas in the LCS. This one is a no-brainer.
Todd Frazier, 3B/1B, (.213/.344/.428, 27 HR, 76 RBI overall; .222/.365/.423, 11 HR, 32 RBI with Yankees)
Verdict: Parting is such sweet sorrow
Of all the Yankees free agents, this one may be the hardest decision. I think the Toddfather won over Yankee fans with his enthusiasm, solid glove work, clutch hits and leadership. Acquiring him was one of the best deadline moves the Yankees have made in a long time, and it’s doubtful they would have made the playoff run they did without him. The problem is, he plays a position where the Yanks have depth and youngsters who profile as a serious offensive threats in Miguel Andujar and Greg Bird. Further, Frazier’s high strikeout tendencies make him a lousy bench option – and the Yankees already have a player with a similar profile already under contract in Chase Headley. It’s conceivable the Yankees might leave Andujar in the minors for another season, which would open a spot for Frazier. But would he take a one-year deal when he’s already 32? Probably not, especially when next year he would be faced with entering the free agent market with Manny Machado and Nolan Arenado ahead of him.
Matt Holliday, DH/OF, (.231/.316/.432, 19 HR, 64 RBI)
Verdict: Thanks, but good-bye
The 37 year old veteran gave the Yankees a serious boost in the first half of the season, but then age and injuries caught up with him and Holliday was a non-factor in the second half. He’s a had a good career, but Holliday is looking at the end of the road. I can’t see the Yankees retaining his services, not when he can’t play a position in the field anymore and the DH spot will likely be used as partial days off for the other players.
Jacoby Ellsbury, Outfield (.264/.348/.402, 7 HR, 22SB) Signed through 2020; $68 million owed
Verdict: Trade him. Please.
Arguably the worst free agent signing the Yankees have made in the last 20 years, it is time for the Yankees to move Ellsbury. Once, his speed and defense made up for his below average hitting, but 2017 saw his his ability to track down fly balls regress to league average, and teams ran at will on his weak throwing arm. There’s still some speed and on-base ability, tools which might be of interest to some teams who can use him as a DH and occasional center fielder. The contract is onerous, as it gives Ellsbury a guaranteed payday until he’s 38. But the Yankees should willingly eat some it to make room for up-and-coming young outfielders like Aaron Hicks, Clint Frazier and Estevan Florial.
Brett Gardner, Outfield (.264/.350/.423, 21 HR, 63 RBI, 23 SB) Signed through 2018; $13.5 million owed
Verdict: Career Yankee!
Every year, Brett Gardner’s name boils up on the hot stove. And every year, Yankee brass does the smart thing and doesn’t trade him. Yes, Gardy is entering his age 34 season, the same as Jacoby Ellsbury. Yes, he isn’t the flat-out speed demon he was 8 years ago. If Gardner’s entire game was built around speed, that would be problematic. Fortunately for the Yankees, his game is multi-faceted. Beyond that, Gardner’s intangibles – his hustle, leadership and gritty play – are irreplaceable on a team that will feature a lot of youth.
Chase Headley, 3B/1B (.273/.352/.406, 12 HR, 61 RBI) Signed through 2018, $13 million owed
Verdict: One last hurrah
When you look in the dictionary for the definition of “league average,” Chase Headley’s picture pops up. Now entering his age 34 season, Headley is no longer truly a starting corner infielder, but he’s serviceable enough that he can serve as a back-up at either corner. Odds are the Yankees will break camp with Headley starting at 3B, but by midseason he looks to resume the role he filled this past season during the second half as Miguel Andujar and Gleyber Torres should be in the Bronx by then. Every successful team needs players like Headley: experienced role players who can fill in when needed, don’t grouse about their role and can be an effective bat off the bench. Also in his favor is that his contract is league average, too. He would be a hard player to replace.
Starlin Castro, 2B (.300/.338/.453, 16 HR, 63 RBI) Signed through 2019, $23 million owed
Verdict: Trade bait
Starlin Castro is only entering his age 28 season, is a lifetime .282 hitter and has already accumulated 1,280 career hits. So why dangle him as trade bait? Two words: Gleyber Torres. It’s not that Castro is a bad player, in fact, the Yankees should be able to get a decent return for him. But Torres almost made it to the Bronx lost year. Only a freak injury derailed him. If he doesn’t break camp with the big club, he will certainly be in Pinstripes by June.
Ok, that’s my take. I’d love to see your thoughts in the comments section!
With the end of the 2017 season, Yankees ownership has some decisions to make, perhaps none bigger than what to do about the General Manager and manager. Both Brian Cashman and Joe Girardi’s contracts expire after this year, and the question is should either of them be offered the chance to stay in Pinstripes.
I don’t think anyone can reasonably argue that Yankees ownership would be suicidal to cut Brian Cashman loose. Since the Steinbrenner’s gave him full control over personnel decisions, the Yankees have become a markedly improved team. Shrewd trades and free agent signings have turned around the club in the Bronx. By keeping an eye towards the future as well as the present, Cashman also has the Yankees set up to make a major splash in the international free agent market this offseason and major league free agent market after the upcoming season, while getting the team’s payroll below the dreaded luxury tax threshold.
Several years ago, Cashman made improving the team’s minor league farm system a priority, which he’s done. Most baseball evaluators rank the system as one of the five best in the game, with several placing it in the top three. Even before trading for prospects such as Gleyber Torres and Clint Frazier, the system was developing major league caliber talent, with this season’s youngsters of note (Gary Sanchez, Greg Bird, Luis Severino, Dellin Betances and Aaron Judge) all having been drafted and developed by the Yankees.
A general manager’s job is to put a contending team on the field, while ensuring payroll is kept manageable enough that ownership can be comfortable. Cashman has the team on the right track. Releasing him would be mistake.
Joe Girardi, like Cashman, is also on an expiring contract. Unlike Cashman, Girardi’s case isn’t as cut and dried.
A major league team’s manager can have differing responsibilities, based on the front office’s expectations. Some teams ask the manager to teach a young team to play at a major league. Others ask the manager to maintain clubhouse order and make a team of cast-offs and never-were’s respectable. Still others want their manager to get their team to the playoffs.
For the New York Yankees, the manager always has one job, and one job only: win. And winning means, win the World Series. Anything less is considered a failure.
This is Girardi’s 10th season as Yankee manager. In that time, his teams have been to the World Series once. Over that same period, the Giants have been three times, the Phillies twice, the Rangers twice and the Royals twice. That the team hasn’t been as successful on the field during his ten years isn’t entirely Girardi’s fault, though. But there is a case to be made that this season might qualify as his worst at the helm.
Most baseball fans have probably heard of “WAR,” even if they don’t fully understand it. It represents a player’s value above that of a typical “replacement” level player. (Fangraphs has a detailed and easy to understand explanation here.) A team full of 0 WAR players would be expected to only win 48 games (which would set a record for futility) but the idea is that if you can cobble together a roster worth 52 WAR, you should win 100 games. It can be argued that if a team wins more games than their cumulative WAR, then the manager positively influenced the final record. The same goes for the converse.
Another way of evaluating a manager’s effectiveness is by using a little known statistic called Pythagorean Won/Loss. It measures the numbers of runs a team scored and the number it allowed, and comes up with an expected win total. (When Bill James came up with this, it sparked a firestorm which still rages in sabermetric circles).
In 2017, the Yankees aggregate team WAR was 55.1, which would equate to a 103-59 record.
In 2017, the Yankees Pythagorean W/L record was 100-62.
In 2017, the Yankees actual record was 91-71.
Throughout the previous 9 years of his tenure, Girardi had been worth between 3 and 8 wins to his team; which is to say, the Yankees typically won 3 to 8 games more per year than they statistically should have. In 2016, he was worth around 5 wins to the Yankees. So it’s fair to ask, why did this year’s squad so badly underperform their stats?
I think there are some clues in Girardi’s postseason performance. Everyone is well versed in how badly he botched Game 2 of the division series against the Indians. But there were some decisions in the ALCS, especially regarding his handling of the pitching staff, that are head scratchers. Over the years, Girardi has earned a reputation as a manager who perhaps overly relies on statistical analysis, and not enough on what his eyes see happening on the field. The fans have even coined the nickname “Binder Joe” because of this tendency. And so we had an exhausted Tommy Kahnle trying to get out hitters with his fourth best pitch in Game 7 and a spent David Robertson left in to get pounded in Game 6. We watched a tired Luis Severino lose the strike zone in Game 6. We watched as the Yankees best reliever, Aroldis Chapman, was left in the bullpen in critical junctures of both games – and never get used at all.
It is entirely possible that while he relates to his players on a personal level (the way the team rallied around the manager in the LDS is testament to that), too many of the Yankees players in 2017 were too unfamiliar to their manager for him to properly gauge how best to deploy them during the season. The youth movement underway in the Bronx certainly revealed some of the young talents shortcomings, from Gary Sanchez’s defensive failings, to Betances’ mechanical woes and Judge’s prodigious strike-out totals. Girardi never seemed to be able to address those problems, or even willing to at times.
Those would all be reasons to dismiss Girardi, but I don’t think the Yankees should -or will. Removing Girardi because of one bad year would be shortsighted, I think, especially when over the course of his career he’s proven to be one the 5 best major league managers in the game. I do think, in light of the youth movement underway (I fully expect to see at least another 4 or 5 of the Baby Bombers in Pinstripes next season), Girardi will need to step up his game and leave the binders in his office once the game starts.
Dismissing Girardi also begs the question: who would you replace him with? As I said above, his history says he is one the 5 best managers in the game today. The Yankees are on the cusp of many playoff appearances and potential world championships to come. It’s not the time to gamble on an untested commodity, and I doubt the Yankees will be able to pry Tito Francona or Joe Maddon away from their respective teams.
So, for now, I think the Yankees will stand pat with their managerial personnel. They’ve brought the team this far. MIght as well give them the chance to finish the job.
Even though it seems as if the season just started, we’ve already passed the quarter pole and the annual All-Star game is less than 2 months away. We have enough info in to start making smart selections about which players are deserving of votes, and I filled out my first ballot. MLB allows you to vote up to 35 times. I think that’s a bit excessive.
Unlike past years, there are no retiring superstar players who are well past their prime but deserving of election for sentimental reasons. There are no Jeter’s, no Big Papi’s, no A-Rod’s. What there is, is a crop of excellent players that makes selecting the most deserving ones a difficult choice.
So, my apologies to Marcus Thames of the Brewers, whose return from Korea was marked by an explosion of home runs. Paul Goldscmitt of the Diamondbacks has had a terrific start to his year, but he plays a position (first base) dominated by all-star caliber players. Ditto For Ryan Zimmerman of the Nationals, whose resurgence has been jaw dropping. Nolan Arenado of the Rockies and Kris Bryant of the Cubs, don’t feel slighted – it’s just that Jake Lamb is producing a season for the ages.
Most of you will probably be surprised that I’m not naming anyone from last year’s World Champion’s on my ballot. It isn’t that they don’t have deserving players throughout their roster. It’s just that other players are having even more deserving campaigns.
My love of the Yankees is well known, but it isn’t because I’m a homer that I’ve selected three Bronx Bombers to my AL squad. It’s pretty hard to argue with selecting baseball’s latest human highlight reel (and MLB homer run leader) in Aaron Judge. Brett Gardner is leading all ML left fielders in OBP, OPS and leads the majors in runs scored. As for Starlin Castro, his .335 batting average leads all AL second basemen, and his 7 homers and 27 RBI each only one behind the league leader, Robinson Cano of the Mariners.
There are a couple of other players who’s seasons deserve merit, but didn’t quite make the cut. Logan Morrison of Tampa Bay is having a stellar year and it was tough picking him or Yonder Alonso. Freddie Freeman was on pace to set all types of records before he got hurt. And there are so many great shortstops in the game now, selecting only two seems like a crime. This isn’t a knock on guys like Xander Bogarts, Francisco Lindor, Carlos Correa, Chris Owings, Corey Seager and Brandon Crawford (or my personal favorite, Didi Gregorius).
What my ballot does have is a ton of under 30 talent. In fact, the oldest player on my ballot is Joey Votto (33 years old). There is one rookie, three second-year players and three third-year players. Of the 17 players I chose, 8 would make their first all-star game appearance. That’s a lot of youth. And that’s a good thing for baseball.
So, here are my selections:
C: Salvador Perez, Kansas City Royals. The model of being both durable and prolific, the 4 time All-Star leads AL catchers with an .871 OPS. His 11 homers leads his team.
1B: Yonder Alonso, Oakland A’s. Finally released from baseball purgatory in San Diego, the former can’t-miss prospect is finally showing his form, with 12 homers and a .991 OPS for a not-so-good team.
2B: Starlin Castro, New York Yankees. A former All-Star with the Cubs, the free swinger has stopped swinging so freely. That .335 average comes from leading the league in hits.
3B: Miguel Sano, Minnesota Twins. Joey Gallo has gotten the press for his prodigous blasts, but the younger Sano is belting them more often and in bigger spots. After a horrendous rookie campaign, it looks like the big guy has figured it out with a .319 average, 11 homers and 37 RBI.
SS: Jean Segura, Seattle Mariners. The Mariners traded for him hoping to improve their shortstop play. I don’t think they were expecting a .336 average and 26 runs scored. But they won’t complain.
LF: Brett Gardner, New York Yankees. Maybe he’s amped by the “Baby Bombers.” Whatever it is, after a terrible first two weeks, he’s now hitting .281 with 9 homers and 32 runs for the league’s highest scoring offense.
CF: Mike Trout, Los Angeles Angels. He’s the best player in the game, and all he’s doing this year is hitting .343 with 14 homers and 43 RBI. Oh, and an other-worldly 1.205 OPS.
RF: Aaron Judge, New York Yankees. Everyone knew he was going to be good, but the rookie has been much more than that. Witness his .315 average and 15 homers. Opposing pitchers are tired of “being Judged.”
DH: Corey Dickerson, Tampa Bay Rays. His .345 average and 12 homers from the lead-off spot is pretty much all his team could ask for, even if opposing pitchers wish he’d leave them alone.
C: Buster Posey, San Francisco Giants. I know he was hurt for a while. But he still leads all NL catchers with a .362 average, 7 homers and an OPS of 1.008.
1B: Joey Votto, Cincinnati Reds. His 12 homers, 38 RBI and 1.005 OPS made him the best of a terrific crop of NL first basemen.
2B: Daniel Murphy, Washington Nationals. Remember when the Mets said he was just a singles hitter? Turns out he’s just a hitter. His .327 average leads NL second sackers, and the 9 home runs and 33 RBI each lead all MLB second basemen.
3B: Jake Lamb, Arizona Diamondbacks. Maybe the best hitter you haven’t heard of, Lamb is proving an excellent rookie campaign was just an opening act. He’s slashing .298/11/36 so far this year.
SS: Zack Cozart, Cincinnati Reds. Long known as a reliable defender, he’s turned it up a notch this year with the bat. Maybe two notches, what with a .348 average.
LF: Michael Conforto, New York Mets. Where would the Mets be without him? When the season began, nobody knew when he would play. But with a .320/13/34 slash, the real question is who dares sit him?
CF: Charlie Blackmon, Colorado Rockies. Before you start yelling about Coors Field, recognize that Blackmon has more HR on the road (7) than at home (4). And a .322 average is nothing to sneeze at.
RF: Bryce Harper, Washington Nationals. Harper might be tired of being told he’s the second best player in the game. He might be taking his wrath out on NL pitching. But there’s a lot of talent fueling that .349/13/37 slash.
A month ago, I wrote that the Yankees GM, Brian Cashman, needed to get off his duff and get to work retooling the Yankees roster. While I would like to take credit for the moves he made since, I doubt that had anything to do with it. But, other than a bolt-from-the-blue move (hello, Max Scherzer?) or some work on the roster fringes, Cashman has revamped the Yankees for the 2015 season. Now the question is, can the rebuilt squad contend?
First, a caveat: at this point of the year, a team would have to be facing serious problems to think they couldn’t contend. Between parity and the two wild-cards in each league, even seriously flawed teams have to think they have at least a puncher’s chance at earning a playoff spot. Even with the problems the Yankees face heading into 2015, contention is a definite probability. But then again, on paper the Marlins, Mets and Brewers are all contenders, too. No, these are the Yankees and what I’m talking about is actually being a force to reckoned with come October.
Well, the short answer is: probably not. It isn’t for lack of talent. The “back of the baseball card” theory of talent evaluation would lead you to believe that, if everything breaks right, the Yankees could win 105 games and sweep into the playoffs a prohibitive favorite to win it all. But there are too many questions, too many “ifs” and too many aging players on this roster to truly believe that will happen. Here’s a short list of things that need to break right:
*CC Sabathia‘s knee is fully healed and doesn’t bother him at all. In fact, it turns out the bum knee has been his problem for the past three seasons and he turns in a vintage 20 win, 200+ inning, 200+ strikeout season.
*Masahiro Tanaka‘s right elbow doesn’t reach home plate before one of his splitters some fine June afternoon.
*Ivan Nova comes back from Tommy John surgery with new found command and focus.
*Michael Pineda proves that last season wasn’t just a pine-tar induced haze and becomes the pitcher the Yanks thought they were getting when they sent
the jar of mayo Jesus Montero to Seattle.
*Reports of Nathan Eovaldi developing a killer change up to go along with his 96 mph fastball are true and he realizes the promise that made scouts drool.
*Dellin Betances turns into the kind of closer that makes fans say, “Mariano who?”
*Rob Refsnyder plays an acceptable second base and hits around .290, while fellow rookie Jose Pirela turns into the type of super-sub Yankee fans were expecting to see from Martin Prado.
*Mark Teixeira stays healthy enough to play 140+ games and stops trying to hit every pitch into Hoboken.
*Didi Gregorius hits left handed pitching well enough, and Chase Headley’s back stays strong enough, to keep Brendan Ryan glued to the bench.
*Carlos Beltran plays less like Carlos Danger and more like Carlos Beltran.
*Alex Rodriguez realizes his time has passed and retires. Before Spring Training opens.
And that’s a short list of things that need to happen for the Yankees to be a major force this year. I actually think Pineda will be fine, that Eovaldi will prove to be a steal, that Refsnyder and Gregorius will develop into a very good keystone combination. I doubt any of the rest of the things listed above happen: Tex is a shell of the player the Yanks signed 6 seasons ago, Sabathia seems fated to being a sub-.500, over 5.00 ERA type pitcher these days and even if Nova comes back strong, he’ll remain the enigmatic headcase he’s been for the past 3+ years. Beltran is entering his age 38 season battered from his injury history. And sadly, A-Rod will never walk away from the $60 million still owed him, even if he’s hitting .150 without any homers on the ledger. As for Tanaka, the type of injury he’s nursing should have been addressed with surgery last summer, not the wing-and-a-prayer approach both he and the team are taking.
If things really go bad, the Yankees are looking to get 150 or more innings from an old Chris Capuano, and in all likelihood shuttle guys like Chase Whitley in and out of the rotation during the season. We’ll probably get to see the MLB debuts of stud prospects like Bryan Mitchell and Luis Severino, a year early. Meanwhile, the cache of aging and injury prone players leaves Joe Girardi filling out a line-up card with Ryan, Gregorius, Pirela, Chris Young, Austin Romine and Mason Williams all starting for extended periods. If you want to say “yuck,” feel free. (You’re also excused if you’re unsure who those guys are. Trust me. They’re baseball players.)
That’s the conundrum facing both the Yankees front office and fans this upcoming season. Everything goes great, 95 wins and a division title. Everything goes wrong, 65 wins and the Hal is asking the Astros for directions out of the basement.
It’s time to take a break from politics for a moment and concentrate on that other topic of extreme national importance: Baseball.
Specifically, the only team that really matters to the sport: the New York Yankees. Because let’s face it, whether you live in Alaska or New York, the Yankees are the team that drives MLB. They’re kind of like Barack Obama. You either love them or hate them, but you can’t ignore them. The last thing MLB needs is for their premier team, the one playing in the $1 billion stadium in the largest media market in the world, is to be irrelevant. Remember how wonderfully well the sport fared the last time the Yankees were irrelevant, about 25 years ago? The team in Montreal folded. The Twins and Marlins almost disappeared. Attendance and fan interest waned across the land.
Well, I hate to break the news to MLB, but the Yankees are fast approaching the point of not mattering again. After two consecutive years of not being contenders (and really, the last time they put a serious contender on the field was in 2010), the only news coming out of the south Bronx is that the Human Steroid is attempting to salvage the $60 million owed on his contract. Baseball doesn’t need any more of Alex Rodriguez‘ shenanigans, not after 2+ years of his mea culpas and Fred Astaire impersonations.
What MLB does need is for the Yankees GM, Brian Cashman, to stop sleeping and actually get to work rebuilding the team. The Yankees entered this offseason needing a shortstop, a second baseman, a right handed outfielder, and at least two starting pitchers. They also had to keep the back end of their brilliant bullpen together.
As of this moment, they need a shortstop, a second baseman, a right handed outfielder, and at least two starting pitchers. They also have to keep the back end of their brilliant bullpen together.
This is a nice way of saying that so far, Brian Cashman has done absolutely nothing to address the many roster holes left from the last 3 seasons of roster disasters. That might not be so bad in what is a declining American League East, except the American League isn’t declining any longer. In case you’ve missed it, Boston has done everything imaginable at this point to improve their club. Toronto has done an equally admirable job of improving. Tampa Bay has done what it needed to address the ennui that inevitably set in after a few overly successful seasons. Baltimore ran away with the division last year and made it to the ALCS.
It’s not that the Yankees need to go crazy on retooling, a la the Red Sox, and throw nearly $200 million at older players. But signing a Jon Lester or Max Scherzer would look pretty nice. It’s not that they need to swing a trade for Josh Donaldson, like Toronto, but a Ben Zobrist would look pretty good in pinstripes. It’s not that they need to to pry Andrew Miller away from Baltimore, but they can’t let David Robertson become a repeat of the Robinson Cano debacle from last year.
The Yankees made splashy, but ineffective moves last offseason. Jacoby Ellsbury is a good player, but wasn’t really needed – after all, Brett Gardner was rounding out into a solid center fielder with the same skill set. Carlos Beltran would have been a terrific signing – a decade ago. Brian McCann was a nice addition, but questions about how well the laid-back Southerner handles New York will continue until he proves he can. Besides, had Cashman not balked at resigning all-star catcher Russell Martin a few seasons ago, McCann wouldn’t be here.
In short, the front office pogues at MLB need to light a fire under Cashman’s butt. I say that, because it’s becoming more evident with each passing season that the Steinbrenner family can talk all they want about how they share their late patriarch’s desire to win, but the only thing they really care about is the money they’re making from their cash cow. But baseball as a whole needs the Yankees to be more than Hal’s personal ATM. As such, they need to tell Cashman to do something, anything. The roster is too bloated with over-the-hill player on bad contracts? Fine. Gut the roster. Pay off the old guys, bring up the kids for a season or two and start over. It might not be a win-now strategy but it would at least lend itself to some excitement in the Bronx.
Or if that isn’t palatable, then return to the “Steinbrenner Way” and aggressively pursue the best available talent. Go crazy, offer Lester and Scherzer $200 million each. Back up a Brinks truck to Nelson Cruz‘ door. Give Asdrubal Cabrera his own lane across the GWB. Heck, give the A’s everyone not named Gary Sanchez in exchange for Jeff Samardzija.
But whatever you do, don’t just stand pat – or even worse, let your own players walk away. This journey into nothingness does absolutely nothing for the Yankees or baseball.
The 2013 season has ended uncharacteristically early for the Yankees. Since 1995, the team has played October baseball 17 times. The only miss before this season was in 2008.
Well, this year may be the beginning of a new streak, one many fans aren’t familiar with: one where the Yankees are irrelevant to the postseason for a decade or longer. It’s happened twice in my lifetime. There was a 13 year drought from 1965 – 1976 and then a 15 year absence from 1981-1995. But for a fan under 30, odds are they don’t remember those periods of futility. They are as remote to their experience as the days of Honus Wagner and Babe Ruth. To them, I can only say: “Buckle up. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.”
2013 is the season in which age finally caught up to the team. Baseball is a young man’s game, and trying to remain competitive when you’re starting line-up features 6 players over the age of 33 was going to be an adventure. That five of the six suffered serious injury isn’t a huge surprise. That the sixth, RF Ichiro Suzuki, played 148 games this year should be. 2014 will probably be the season when age and the salary cap finally sink the team. Ownership has repeatedly announced they plan to drop payroll below $187 million, a drop of $40 million from this season. Of that, about $93 million is already committed to a handful of players. That leaves precious little to shore up a team that is going to lose some key players, has two key contributors entering free agency and not much in the farm system. Let’s take a look at the internal options for next year – and what can reasonably be expected.
IF: Returning – 1B Mark Teixeira, SS Derek Jeter, SS Eduardo Nunez, UT Jayson Nix, C Chris Stewart, C Francisco Cervelli, C Austin Romine
Free Agents – 1B/3B Kevin Youkilis, 1B/3B Mark Reynolds, 1B Lyle Overbay, 1B Travis Hafner, 2B Robinson Cano
Limbo – 3B Alex Rodriguez
In the minors – 2B/3B David Adams, C JR Murphy, 1B Corban Joseph, C Gary Sanchez, 3B/OF Ronnier Mustelier
When you feature three shortstops on your major league roster, you realistically don’t have any. For a team that featured a future Hall-of-Famer at the position since 1996, it’s a strange place to be. Yet the Yankees would be insane if they think Jeter can be an everyday shortstop at age 40, especially coming off a season in which he never healed from a season ending injury in 2012. Do the Yanks stand pat, praying that the talented, but erratic Nunez can blossom while Jeter plays perhaps 30-40 games in the field? Equally concerning is the situation at third, where the safe bet is that PED King Alex Rodriguez will serve most, if not all, of his record 211 game suspension. He didn’t look like a major league caliber fielder during his abbreviated stint this season and the options behind him aren’t terrific. First appears set with the return of Mark Teixeira, but how effective will the 34 year old be coming off major wrist surgery?
But the biggest question of all is what to do about Cano. The guy is talented, but he’s always lacked the inner drive that transforms talent into greatness (ever watch him run out a ground ball or routine double?). He often looks bored and tends to press when the team needs him most. Still, without him the Yankees could face a total power outage in 2014 and beyond. Reports today have him asking for a 10 year, $310 million contract. Given their financial commitments, there’s no way the Bronx Bombers resign him at anything close to that price. But they really don’t have any options at second base, They could get a decent second sacker in free agency, but there aren’t any of Cano’s caliber, or even any viable long term solutions available.
OF: Returning – CF Brett Gardner, LF Alfonso Soriano, RF Ichiro Suzuki, OF Vernon Wells
Free Agents – OF Curtis Granderson
In the minors – LF Zoilo Almonte, CF Melky Mesa, OF Mason Williams, OF Slade Heathcott, OF/IF Addison Maruszak
The outfield could actually be okay next year, provided Soriano and Ichiro don’t break down. Gardner is never going to be a stud outfielder, but does possess speed and a great glove. Wells is a waste of a roster spot at this point, while Almonte showed signs of being at least a quality fourth outfielder in limited duty.
SP: Returning – LHP CC Sabathia, RHP Ivan Nova, RHP David Phelps
Free Agents/Retired – RHP Phil Hughes, RHP Hiroki Kuroda, LHP Andy Pettitte
In the minors – LHP VIdal Nuno, RHP Michael Pineda, LHP Manny Banuelos, LHP Nik Turley
This could be the worst starting rotation in baseball next season. No, really – I’m not joking. The team is losing three members from this year’s rather mediocre staff (unless GM Brian Cashman has aneurysm and resigns Hughes). That leaves an aging and increasingly ineffective CC Sabathia as the lone proven quantity. Ivan Nova has shown flashes, but not consistency. Phelps will probably develop into a reliable back-of-the-rotation pitcher. Adam Warren probably earned a shot at a starting spot with his strong effort out of the bullpen. Barring a free agent signing, that means the Yanks will hope that Pineda, Nuno or Banuelos can come back from injury plagued seasons and turn their talent into major league performance.
RP: Returning – RHP David Robertson, RHP Preston Claiborne, RHP Shawn Kelly, LHP Boone Logan, RHP Adam Warren, LHP David Huff
Free Agents/Retiring – RHP Mariano Rivera, RHP Joba Chamberlain
In the minors – LHP Cesar Cabral, RHP Dellin Betances, RHP Brett Marshall
This was the strongest unit for the Yanks in 2013 and looks to be again in 2014. Of course, replacing Mariano Rivera is impossible, but David Robertson should be more than adequate as the closer. The setup corps will suffer from the promotion of Robertson and the likely move of Warren to the rotation, but adding Cabral (who has looked good as a LOOGY) and Betances should be adequate. Chamberlain is addition through subtraction at this point.
Ok, so it’s the weekend. Time to take a break from the serious stuff. Time to kick back, relax, drink a cold adult beverage and do something just for fun.
For me, that’s always meant baseball. These days, decrepit knees and faltering eyesight have ended what was once an almost promising career in an over-35 league. (We won’t talk about my misadventures on the field before I turned 35, either). Suffice it to say while my play has never reminded anyone of a major leaguer, I always enjoyed the game. These days, part of my summer routine is to put my feet up and watch my favorite team: the New York Yankees.
I’ve been a fan since the original bad old days, when Ron Blomberg and Fred Stanley were mainstays. I cheered when the team was great, suffered again when they got really bad and jumped for joy when they returned to the pinnacle. These days, turning on a Yankees game is almost a rite of self-immolation. Has the circle turned yet again?
In a word, yes. Last year’s team won their division. This year’s squad will be lucky to finish with an even record. What happened? Sadly, nothing a seasoned fan hasn’t seen coming for a couple of years now. Age, injuries and a depleted farm system have resulted in the current roster of cast-offs, has-beens and never-weres.
Age: Baseball is a young man’s game. Players once were considered on the downside of his career by the time they turned 32. Then, steroids and amphetamines kept guys in their late 30’s playing better than their younger counterparts. Baseball has done a good job on getting the drugs out of the game and once again, players in their mid-30’s are not producing like they did 3 or 4 seasons prior. On the other hand, a rule of thumb is that (except for the occasional phenom) young players need 2 or 3 seasons to become solid contributors.
This is troubling for the Yankees. They field the majors oldest team, with an average age of 32. On most nights, they put 4 players on the field over 35. Three of the starting pitchers are 34 or older and the closer is 43. Toss in that three rookies are playing regularly, while another 4 are pitching regularly, and age is a big problem for the team.
Injuries: The Yankees have an all-star team on the disabled list. It includes players who have transcended the sport to become cultural icons in Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez, the starting first baseman, starting center fielder and starting catcher, and the starting DH who was also supposed to be the primary backup at first and third base. It’s forced journeymen to play first base, shortstop, third base, catcher, DH and two outfield positions. The result is about what you would expect: going into play last night, the Yankees were next to last in the league in batting average and slugging percentage, last in total hits and doubles and in the bottom third in runs scored. The trends haven’t been positive, either: the team was second in runs scored in April, but dead last in June.
Farm System: The last time the Yankee farm system produced a solid position player was Robinson Cano, in 2005. That’s eight seasons since any Yankee farm hand has proven to be even a league average player. Necessity has forced the Yankees to play one rookie at third base, another about 30% of the time at catcher and they recently called up another to play left field. The combined batting average of those three is .211. Sadly, there isn’t a player in AAA or even AA that looks like a sure-fire major leaguer, either. There are hopes for three AA outfielders and a catcher in A ball, but those players are at least a year (and probably two) before being able to help the major league roster.
At least the pitching has fared better. The Yankees have had a pretty good crop of decent pitchers come up through the system, including mainstays Phil Hughes, Joba Chamberlain, Ivan Nova, David Robertson, Adam Warren, David Phelps and Preston Claiborne.
So how does all of this translate into the future? Not very well. Jeter is trying to come back from breaking the same ankle twice at age 39. He is a certain Hall-of-Famer once he retires, but few men have played shortstop at his age. Whether Jeter can remains to be seen; at this point he still hasn’t demonstrated the ability to even get through one game physically. Rodriguez, at 38, is trying to come back from a twice-repaired hip – the type of injury that ends most careers. Mark Teixeira and Kevin Youkilis’s seasons are officially over. Of all the injured starters, only Curtis Granderson has a reasonable shot at coming back at anywhere close to the type of player he was before breaking his wrist. Now toss in the fact that the Yankees management has committed to shed about $50 million in payroll next season, nearly 20% of the team’s current budget. It means the Yankees will likely be finding bargain basement players to man the left side of the infield, catcher, an outfield spot and three of the starting pitchers. Teixeira will be back, but nobody is expecting him to be anything like the player he was five seasons ago. It’s likely that Granderson will be let go in free agency – and there is uncertainty if Cano comes back. Everyone thinks he will be, but his current asking price is actually too rich for this version of Yankee brass.
No, this is looking like the start of another run of futility in the South Bronx. The only question is, how long will this one last?
As some may have noticed, I’ve been writing for Zell’s Pinstripe Blog. Feel free to read my baseball musings there, at http:zellspinstripeblog.wordpress.com.
You can still join me here for the latest in political conversation.
In case you’ve been under a rock this morning, George M. Steinbrenner III, owner of the greatest sports franchise in history for the past 38 years, passed away around 9:45am after a massive heart attack.He had just celebrated his 80thbirthday on July 4.
George was bombastic, argumentative and at times a bit crazy. But like your slightly off-kilter uncle, George was part of our family – and because he was always a fan first and owner second, we understood and accepted him, even when the rest of the world tried to shun him. We always knew we were part of the Yankees Family, as long as George was around. Yes, he made a ton of money, but unlike other owners in any sport, he put that money back into the team. Ask a fan in Kansas City or Pittsburgh if they would rather have their current ownership or a George Steinbrenner, and the answer is always “George.” As much as the rest of baseball cries foul every time the Yankees sign the best players on the free agent market to multi-million dollar contracts, MLB has never had to step in and force the Yankees to spend their revenue on improving the team (a la the Florida Marlins). Even when the media would hoist him on a petard of his own making, George remained the Boss: large and in charge.
And one thing remained constant throughout the years: winning. When he bought the team in 1973 from CBS, the Yankees had fallen to become a laughing stock. The great stadium was empty on most days and falling into disrepair, the team was terrible and without direction. From the start, the Boss was determined to restore the Yankee legacy. He convinced a broke New York City to repair the destitute field that had once seen immortals like Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle. He imported new stars to roam a revitalized Yankee Stadium: Mickey Rivers. Willie Randolph. Graig Nettles. Lou Piniella. Bucky Dent. Chris Chambliss. Catfish Hunter. Reggie Jackson. Within three years, the Yankees had returned to the World Series. The next season, the team rewarded George with the first of his seven world championships. In 2009, the new Yankee Stadium was completed and while we were all saddened to see the original go, it truly is worthy of the name Yankee Stadium. George struck again, signing CC Sabathia, AJ Burnett and Mark Texeira. And once again, the team rewarded him with a world championship.
The public perception of George was of a man who didn’t care about those around him, but his legacy will be larger than the Bronx Bombers. Over the years, he created foundations that will continue to serve the needs of ordinary people throughout the Tampa and New York areas for years to come. As a veteran, the work George did for our servicemen and women, including sponsoring scholarships for the children of fallen heroes, will always hold a special place in my heart.
George Steinbrenner was not always a beloved figure in New York sports, but nobody ever doubted his commitment to winning. For that, Yankees fans everywhere will always love him. RIP, Boss – you earned it.
What a Week!
June 28, 2010
The Yankees are now home after completing a tour of the NL West. Well, a half-tour, anyway – and considering the way the games against the Diamondbacks and Dodgers went, I don’t think anyone in the Bronx is exactly sorry to have missed out on seeing the Giants and Padres. So, what did we learn about the Bombers this past week?
- Even when this team plays like crap, they’re still better than most. The series finales against Arizona and LA were hardly well-played, crisp games. Despite Andy Pettite uncharacteristically trying to literally throw a game away against the Dodgers, the team rebounded with four runs in the 9th and two more in the 10th to win. And after Dontrelle Willis and Javier Vazquez proceeded to try and walk everyone in the ballpark (including the hot-dog vendor in section 235); after both teams managed to run themselves out of big inning after big inning; the Yanks won a game that set baseball back to the Snuffy Stirnweiss era.
- Dave Eiland may be more important than anyone realized. While the rest of the pitching staff has rolled on this month while he took a leave of absence, AJ Burnett’s implosion worsened on this trip. He managed to pitch to a 16.71 ERA in two starts. The rest of the numbers aren’t any better (unless you’re masochistic enough to think a 1.432 OPSa is great). Most alarming is that as a strike-out pitcher, AJ only managed 13 total swings-and-misses over 7 innings. That’s less than two per inning. AJ simply cannot succeed if bats are finding his pitches. If Eiland’s imminent return doesn’t cure AJ it will be time for the Yankees to forget looking to the Marlins for pitching help. After Kevin Brown and Carl Pavano before, it may just be that the chemicals in Miami’s water cause combustion when mixed with NYC water.
- Forget Cliff Lee and David DeJesus. The Yankees aren’t desperate for starting pitching or outfield health. The emergence of stable play from farmhands Chad Huffman and Colin Curtis have given the Yanks solid OF options (which may be needed more than ever, depending on Brett Gardner’s health). And despite AJ Burnett’s problems (see above), I doubt he’ll continue to pitch this poorly. Infield depth, though, is another matter. I like Ramiro Pena and Kevin Russo, but they’ve proven their bats are not big-league ready. There are available infielders out there – Ty Wiggington, Jeff Keppinger, Garrett Atkins and Johnny Peralta, just to name a few. Will the Yankees get one? Time will tell, but it’s hard to imagine this team rolling into August without a veteran manning the reserve IF spot.
Finally, what are the Yanks to do with Chan-Ho Park? In two appearances, Chan Oh-No proved to be more arsonist than fireman. It’s hard to imagine the team cutting bait on this guy. Brian Cashman hates admitting mistakes and after having to DFA Randy Winn earlier this year, dumping Park would be another admittance of failure. But at this point, the manager has expressed reservations about using him in anything other than a mop-up role. My bet is once either Alfredo Aceves or Sergio Mitre comes off the DL, Park should pack his bags in anticipation of a one-way ticket out of New York.
When I titled this blog Political Baseballs, I was using a common euphemism that I thought explained my two great passions in life. (Not discounting my wife, but I think she understands). That is to say, I’m passionate about baseball. And I’m passionate about politics. I never thought the two topics would wind up in the same post. After all, the last time politics and baseball met in the Twilight Zone we were subjected to Mark McGwire suddenly forgetting how to speak, Sammy Sosa suddenly forgetting how to speak English and Raffy Palmeiro suddenly forgetting how to tell the truth. I’ve always relied on baseball to take my mind off the drudgery to which everyday life subjects all of us. I’ve reveled in the game’s unique characters and their antics. I mean, who can forget Bill “Spaceman” Lee, Dick “Dirt” Tidrow from the ’70s? And who didn’t become enthralled with Cal Ripken’s pursuit of Lou Gehrig’s record (yes, even I, the lifetime Yankees fan found myself rooting for him)?
But thanks to the Lords of Baseball and their unrepentant zeal to one-up Roger Goodell and Co. over at the NFL, here we are again. It seems that in their quest to make major league baseball apolitical, they’ve stepped right into the issue of First Amendment rights. Or perhaps I should say, stomped on the First Amendment altogether. And now, MLB is facing the prospect of alienating a whole segment of their fans. Shortsightedness certainly can go a long way.
For those of you unfamiliar with the story, last week MLB banned all employees from using their Twitter accounts from commenting on anything other than games or their teams. What seems to have been the inspiration behind this dubious edict is a little known reliever for the Oakland A’s, Brad Ziegler. Ziegler was posting comments on his Twitter account regarding his non-support for a potential sports boycott of Arizona, following that state’s passage of SB1070. As a result of Ziegler’s non-political speech, baseball got nervous. What if other players or writers started using Twitter to voice non-political ideas? Ziegler was adamant over a series of posts that he couldn’t support the ban because he hadn’t read the bill and didn’t know enough about it to take a position. Horrors! Imagine – a public figure stating that the bill should be read and understood before everyone started going loco!
Of course, baseball couldn’t stand for this expression of First Amendment rights. Why, what if ALL of their employees decided that they should tell people to think before they act? What a travesty!
Ok, I’m exaggerating a bit. In the end, baseball’s executive office was trying to prevent the firestorm around this bill from consuming the game. Let’s face it; regardless of where you officially make your stand on this, you’re going to alienate one of baseball’s two core constituencies – either the suburbanites who attend most games, or the Hispanic community, which produces half of MLB players. Rather than take a stand and risk alienating ticket buyers or most of their players, baseball decided it would be best to trample on everyone’s inalienable right to expression. Only, it’s not inalienable if your paycheck is signed by Bud Selig, I guess.
By shutting off a reasonable place where fans and players could voice their opinions, they’ve invited their doomsday scenario. Over the weekend, the MLBPA formally requested that Baseball’s All-Star Game for 2011 not be played in Phoenix. Uh, oh. Financially, baseball can’t really afford to do that – it takes 2-3 years to put the shindig together. Baseball’s executives also don’t want to seem as if they’re caving to player pressure – ever. At the same time, they can’t really risk alienating their players. The last time baseball had acrimonious player relations was in the mid-1970’s through early 1990’s. That period saw 4 work stoppages, including the loss of the World Series in 1994. During that time, baseball slipped in popularity from “America’s Pastime” to fall behind football nationally – and has even slipped behind basketball in some cities.
I don’t know how MLB can extricate itself from this mess. My guess is, they can’t.
I’m looking at it this way: Jefferson wrote that our rights were granted by our Creator. Obviously, the Creator is showing Bud Selig the meaning of “inalienable.”
As anyone who knows me realizes, I was never a fan of bringing Javier Vazquez back to the Yankees. I’ve always thought his failure to win during his last go-round, in 2004, was more mental than mechanical. Those suspicions were furthered when, two years ago while pitching for the White Sox, his manager basically threw him under the bus; challenging his manhood and daring him to be aggressive prior to a playoff start against the Rays. Javy’s response was, well, certainly not full of machismo:
“You know what? It’s not going to [change a lot of opinions] because I’m really the type of guy that when I retire, I’m going to be home in Puerto Rico with my family. I’m not looking to have to change minds if people feel that way.”
He then went out and proceeded to give up 6 runs on 8 hits, including two moon-shot homers, in a miserable 4 1/3 innings. Regardless of how much Kenny Williams may not like Ozzie spouting his opinions in public, he must agree with his manager. After all, the following off-season the White Sox shipped him to Atlanta in exchange for 4 minor leaguers. Of those, only Brent Lillibridge has had any lasting power at the major league level – that is, if you call a .177 batting average in 75 games over parts of two seasons “lasting power.”
Vazquez has been known as baseball’s greatest enigma during his career. When playing for 2nd-division teams, his stuff is electric and he posts eye-popping numbers. But the moment a contender trades for him, he goes into the tank. Consider this chart:
|Javier Vazquez||Teams in Contention||Teams not in Contention|
And you quickly appreciate what Ozzie and other baseball people have long realized: Javy has the stuff, but neither the heart nor the stomach to be a quality big league pitcher. So imagine my horror when I read this in Joel Sherman’s blog yesterday:
“The Yanks did not consider Javier Vazquez a perfect fit. There were members of the organization who felt it was never worthwhile to reunite with a player who had failed previously as a Yankee. There were members of the organization who thought Vazquez had, at the least, a bit of the loser gene; that knack to pitch below his stuff and to give up the crushing hit at the worst time.
‘But for their purposes, the Yanks saw Vazquez as the best possible situation. The Yanks were worried about how hard CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett and Andy Pettitte worked last year between the regular season and postseason, and feared that there could be a diminishment in their stuff/effectiveness. Vazquez, they figured, would at the least be a league-average innings eater, at a time when that species would be of incredible value.”
If true (and I have no reason to doubt it; Joel Sherman has usually been dead right on his sourcing), then that means the sabermatricians in the Yankee front office won out over the baseball people – again. Because let’s face it, Javy Vazquez has been far from league average. His ERA now stands at a nine – dead last among 111 league starters who qualify for the ERA title; the league average is 4.75. I’d rather not get into the rest of the numbers. You can pick up today’s columns from Marc Carig, Paul Bourdet and Mark Feinsand if you’re masochistic enough for that. The most disconcerting thing about Vazquez is that the Yankees brought him back in the hopes that with a reduced role – being a league-average innings-eater – he wouldn’t feel the pressure that has always cooked his goose. Unfortunately, it seems as though Javy can’t get out if his own way. He should have realized from his first tour in the Bronx that blaming the fans for his failures is not the way to get them off his back. Yet, that’s exactly what he did after his last start at Yankee Stadium, when the fans booed him off the field. If he expects better treatment in his next start after those comments (likely on Saturday), then he’s living in fantasy world.
Look: it’s really very simple for Javier Vazquez to get the fans and media off his back. All he has to do is start giving some quality starts. You know, 6+ innings, 3 or fewer runs. String 3 or 4 of those together, and he can start to solidify his hold on the #4 rotation spot. The problem is, I don’t think he’s capable of it, at least not while wearing pinstripes. And already, the rumblings are being heard from the front office that it may be time to cut and run on the whole experiment. Even staunch supporters like Mike Francesa are beginning to jump off the bandwagon (which may be the first time I’ve agreed with him in a long time). The simple fact is, Javy had a horrendous April. But unlike past bad Aprils by CC Sabathia (a proven winner everywhere) or Chien Ming-Wang (who had been a winner before running the bases in Houston), Yankee fans have one indelible picture of Vazquez in their minds, and it’s similar to that of a cowed schoolboy who was just sent to the principal’s office. It doesn’t help him that he was traded for Melky Cabrera – a very popular player. But that’s his reality; he’d better start living it or find another city to play ball in.
The question the Yanks need to ask is, how many more starts are they willing to give him to demonstrate he has the heart, the mental toughness and the desire to pitch in New York? Is it one more? 5 more? 10 more? Right now, the rest of the rotation is pitching well enough to carry him, but nobody really expects Andy Pettite to keep pitching to a 1.29 ERA and nobody really expects Phil Hughes to throw one-hitters every time he takes the mound. Once they come back down to earth, the Yanks will need Vazquez. Will he be up to the challenge, or will they be forced into looking at other options?
Over the past couple of days, I’ve been involved a Twitter war. (Imagine that – Twitter has even encompassed warfare!) The topic: is it OK to boo players on a team you root for?
There are people who believe you should root for players who wear your team’s colors, regardless of their performance. As a fan of the New York Yankees for over 40 years, I find that idea to be incredibly naive. After all, Yankee Stadium is home to the “Bronx Cheer.” For generations, fans have filed through the turnstiles at the House That Ruth Built (and now, that George Built) and cheered our heroes and LOUDLY booed the players who didn’t measure up. The idea of “earning your stripes” originated in the Bronx. It means that a player needs to perform well if he wants to be accepted by the fans. And if he fails, well…his days at Yankee Stadium will be pure hell on earth.
The cause for the twit-war lately has been two recent additions to the Yankee’s pitching staff, Chan-Ho Park and Javier Vazquez. Park is brand-new to Yankee’s fans, but this is the second go-around for Vazquez (his first didn’t end well). Both have, over the past two days, been booed lustily as they exited the game.
The new breed of fan, who doesn’t believe in booing poor performances, is having a hard time reconciling this. In Parks’s case, he made a bad first impression – giving up the winning runs in the first game of the year and pitching poorly in two appearances against the hated Red Sox to begin the season. When he gave up a long home run to Kendry Morales during yesterday’s home opener, he lost whatever support the fans were willing to give him. After all, the hallmark of Yankees Pride throughout the years has been not cracking under pressure and rising to the challenge instead. There’s also CHP’s history to consider. Brian Cashman signed Park based on a half-season of relief work for the Phillies last year. Prior to that, his career wound through stops in LA, Texas, San Diego and Queens. His one year with the Mets? He started on the DL, came on to pitch in one game, giving up 7 runs over 4 innings. Then he disappeared onto the DL for the rest of the year. His prior AL numbers aren’t particularly eye-popping, either. A 5.89ERA, 23-24 record and 1.6 WHIP all point to a guy who’s been hit hard whenever he’s stepped away from the NL. Which is exactly what we’ve seen so far in his Yankee appearances – and thus, the booing.
Javy Vazquez is morphing into the second coming of Eddie Whitson. For those of you unfamiliar with the saga of Eddie Whitson, he came to the Yankees in the mid-80’s, fresh off a spectacular campaign with the Padres. Possessing a lighting fastball, big curve and devastating slider, Whitson was supposed to be the ace that would anchor the Yankees staff for pennant runs to come. Unfortunately for him and Yankees fans, it turned out he couldn’t handle pressure. The booing got so bad that Billy Martin, the manager at the time, didn’t dare pitch him at Yankee Stadium. Eventually, the Yankees traded him back to the Padres for the immortal Tim Stoddard. (Stoddard, by the way, was loudly cheered just for not being Ed Whitson).
Vazquez also possesses a hard fastball and slider, along with a good change-up. He also strikes out lots of hitters. Unfortunately for him, he tends to crack under pressure. In his last Bronx adventure in 2004, he was summoned out of the bullpen in game 7 of the LCS – and gave up the grand slam to Johnny Damon that ended the Curse of the Bambino. That came after a second-half in which he was largely ineffective. Since then, the company line has been that he was pitching with a sore shoulder. Maybe. Or maybe, despite having “plus” stuff Javy just doesn’t have the heart needed to be a prime-time player.
Yankee fans are quickly deciding the latter. In two starts this year, Vazquez has displayed the electric stuff – he has 9 strikeouts in 11 innings – but we’ve also seen him wilt with men on base. He’s only allowed baserunners in 4 of his 11 innings – but those four innings have yielded 12 runs. In other words, when he gets into trouble, Vazquez tends to implode. Contrast that to a fan favorite, Andy Pettite. Pettite always has runners on base – but he makes the big pitch when he needs to and escapes trouble. Andy has HEART. Javy has jelly-legs. It’s also not the first time Vazquez has heard this, by the way. Ozzie Guillen, for whom he pitched in Chicago, got rid of him because he didn’t trust him during the White Sox pennant drive.
It’s the difference between being a Yankee, and simply being a good player who will never earn the right to call themselves a Yankee.